Today, we have just four coin denominations in circulation: Penny, Nickel, Dime, and Quarter. But back in the 1800’s, Americans experienced a dizzying array of coins. They might have found foreign coins – which, believe it or not, were U.S. legal tender until 1857 – as well as so-called “odd denomination” coins that filled the gaps between the Penny and Quarter.
These “odd denomination” coins can be bewildering to today’s collectors. Some of the coins had been around since the start of U.S. coinage in the 1790’s, but others were introduced through the years to address different problems (real or imagined!) in our coinage system.
Coins in the former category were the Half Cent, Large Penny, and Half Dime; those in the latter were the Two Cent, Three Cent, and 20 Cent Pieces. Few people today even know that these “odd” coins ever existed, in part because of their small mintages but also because even the most recent of these coins was last made over 125 years ago in 1889.
Odd Denominations – Unique Coins for Your Collection
One of the most unusual of the “odd denomination” coins is the Half Cent. Last made before the Civil War in 1857, this was once a vital coin to the U.S. economy. Struck in pure copper, it weighed exactly half as much as the Large Penny that gave way in the late 1850’s to the small-size Penny we know today. The Half Cent was slightly smaller than a Quarter, while the Large Penny was slightly smaller than a Half Dollar.
The five-cent Nickel was not introduced until 1866, but Americans had a five-cent coin before this – the 90% silver Half Dime! Once the Nickel came along, the Half Dime was phased out and was last made in 1873.
In 1851, the cost of mailing a letter dropped from 5¢ to 3¢ – and Congress worried that people would not be able to purchase a stamp and get the correct change. And so was born the Three Cent Piece. Originally struck in 75% silver and later in copper-nickel, it was eliminated in 1889, shortly after the postage rate dropped once again to 2¢.
Two of the shortest-lived U.S. coins are the Two Cent and 20 Cent Pieces, both of which came about as misguided ideas to “help” the economy. The Two Cent Piece was first struck during the Civil War in 1864 to help ease the shortage of small-denomination coins, but it was never popular with the public and was last made for circulation in 1872.
The 20 Cent Piece was even more ill-advised. Since the U.S. Dollar was based on a decimal system, Congress decided in 1875 that a 20 Cent Piece made more sense than a Quarter (because it contained a whole number of 10-cent units). However, the Quarter was not withdrawn and the two coins were almost identical in size and design, so they were easily confused. The next year – 1876 – proved to be the last in circulation for the 20 Cent Piece.
Owning just one or two of these fascinating antique coins can be a thrill, and a collection of all six “odd denomination” coins makes a stunning display that is sure to bemuse friends and family!