History Wednesday: Brother, Can You Spare a Fishscale?

I love coins. How much you ask? Well, at one point in the late 80s I was the only Boy Scout in the entire Snake River Area Council to hold the Coin Collecting merit badge.


We’re talking a special order item here.
Image credit: MeritBadge.org

That said, in today’s cashless society, coins – especially smaller denominations – are becoming increasingly obsolete. At this point they’re often produced at a loss to the taxpayer, in no small part because no one wants to piss off the zinc lobby.

Of course, obsolete coins are nothing new. We’ve had plenty of others in the past.

Case in point: the United States Mint went through a ton of different denominations in the mid-19th Century. Few were as strange as the three-cent coin.


Because change in prime numbers is awesome in any era.
Image credit: Bobby131313

Although it’s hard to see how an extremely small, easily lost coin worth three cents could be anything other than unwieldy as all hell regardless of what year it is, for most of its life this coin at least had the advantage of being useful at post offices in a pre-Internet society. The coin’s 1851 introduction coincided with a postage rate decrease. Letters that used to cost five cents to mail now only cost three. Thus, the so-called “fishscale” became a convenient coin to buy a stamp with.


As opposed to making coins out of stamps, which didn’t work out quite as well.

The original three-cent piece was 75 percent silver. While this sounds ludicrous today, in the 1850s it made sense. For one, gold rushes in California and elsewhere flooded markets worldwide with the shiny yellow stuff to the point where silver actually became more valuable. However the public didn’t trust money made out of base metals, but at the same time were apt to hoard and melt down low-denomination coins if they had too much silver in them. A 75 percent silver coin was considered a trade-off: valuable enough to be considered “real money,” but not valuable enough to melt down. After silver prices stabilized a few years later, the silver content of three-cent coin was increased to 90 percent like other coins of the day.

Nevertheless, hoarding of silver and small denomination coins became widespread during the Civil War, hitting the three-cent piece with a shortage from both sides. Experiments with private coinage and fractional currency proved to be epic fails. Ultimately – after giving itself permission to mint fiat money for the first time – in 1865 the government decided to re-formulate the three-cent coin as a copper and nickel concoction. Curiously, the original three-cent silver piece continued to be minted until 1873. Even more curiously, the base metal version of the the three-cent coin was called a “nickel.”


Not to be confused with the five-cent “nickel,” which in turn was different than the “half dime.”

The three-cent “nickel” was discontinued in 1889. Vending machines and yet another drop in postage rates (down to two cents in 1883) were blamed for its demise.

Yes, that’s right. Silver three-cent coins used to be logical, and postage rates used to go down. And you thought you lived in strange times now. Too bad there’s no merit badge for that.

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