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Timely two cents originally released as emergency coin
By Tom LaMarre
August 16, 2017

The two-cent piece was conceived as a Civil War emergency coin. It had two good years, 1864 and 1865. Then it was downhill until an 1873 revision of the coinage law eliminated the denomination.

Coins disappeared from circulation during the war, even copper-nickel cents. An 1864 law authorized bronze cents and two-cent pieces. Because of their minimal intrinsic value, both new coins were expected to be shunned by hoarders.

The two-cent piece’s design, by engraver James B. Longacre, wasn’t bad. The obverse had crossed arrows surmounted by a U.S. shield and framed with laurel branches of victory. The most noteworthy aspect, however, was the ribbon at the top with “In God We Trust,” the first use of the motto on a coin. Apparently it was inspired by increased religious sentiment during the war. A Pennsylvania minister had suggested some such motto, and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase liked the idea.

While the obverse design could have been used on the buttons of a Civil War army uniform, the reverse was more to the point. The dominant feature was a large numeral “2” within an agricultural wreath, making the new denomination easy to recognize. Forming a border was the inscription “United States of America.”

Optimism ruled when the two-cent piece was new, with production to match the enthusiasm.

“The November report of the [Philadelphia Mint] states that…over 3 millions of two-cent pieces were coined last month,” the Dec. 10, 1864, Brooklyn Daily Eagle said. “As these coins are intrinsically worth less than their denomination, there can be no inducement to hoard them, and they should be all in circulation and plentiful enough to answer all the requirements of trade.”

Total production in 1864 amounted to nearly 20 million two-cent pieces. More than 13 million were struck in 1865. Many of them were used to redeem small-denomination notes issued during the war. “The flow of small postage currency is to be stopped,” said the Daily Eagle, June 29, 1865. “There are plenty of pennies and two-cent pieces for all purposes.”

Five-cent nickels, introduced in 1866, served a similar purpose. Their obverse design was similar to that of the two-cent piece.

“The five-cent coins are just the size of the two-cent piece,” the Aug. 24, 1866, Daily Eagle claimed, “and when they get tarnished from use, the difference in the color will not be very striking.”

By the summer of 1867, two-cent pieces were only worth about 20 cents on the dollar. On that basis, the July 6 Daily Eagle said they should be “called in.”

 The series ended with the striking of proof-only two-cent pieces in 1873. The earlier coins were gradually retired from circulation, but it took a long time for them to completely disappear.

“A few years ago 4.5 million two-cent bronze two-cent pieces were set afloat,”the Sept. 6, 1896, Daily Eagle said. “Three millions of these are still outstanding.”

Two-cent pieces in certain dates and condition were already attracting collectors’ attention. “In fine condition, from 1864 to 1870, they are worth about five cents each; 1871 costs 35 cents; 1872, 50 cents, and 1873 about $1.75,” the Daily Eagle said.

Attempts were made to revive the two-cent piece in the 20th century. The one with the most promise of becoming a reality called for a two-cent piece with a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt. It was an ironic twist, considering the two-cent piece was the first U.S. coin with “In God We Trust” and Roosevelt had objected to its use on the Saint-Gaudens double eagle and other coins because he considered it sacrilegious.

“The bill to provide for a ‘Roosevelt two-cent piece’ has gone through the House of Representatives, but there is time to stop it,” the Daily Eagle, Jan. 25, 1921, said. “The late former President would have been first to emphasize that no two-cent piece is needed. And his admirers would much prefer to see his face on a coin that is desired in common circulation.”

Today a Fine-12 1864 two-cent piece, large motto variety, is valued at $20. A Fine-12 1865 plain 5 is valued at $14.

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