A $3 gold piece was first proposed in 1832, but Congress did not authorize the coin until it passed the Mint Act of February 21, 1853. The primary purpose of this Act was to reduce the amount of silver in our circulating silver coinage with the 3-dollar gold piece being added to the Act as a result of an 1851 change in postal rates.
The Congressional Act of March 3, 1845 created the first American postage stamps, and set the cost of a prepaid letter at 5 cents. In 1851, the rate was lowered to 3 cents, and a 3-cent coin was created. The 3-cent coin would eliminate the need for the populace to use the hated large copper cents then in circulation. Copper cents were cumbersome and dirty, and universally shunned. It was reasoned that a 3-dollar coin would be used to buy rolls of 3-cent coins and a large sheets of stamps. A review of the mintage figures for 3-dollar pieces proves this reasoning to be flawed. After the first year of issue, mintages plummeted due to a lack of demand from the public for the denomination. Annual production was usually less than 10,000 with many being under 5,000. The public simply did not need this coin for their day-to-day transactions.
The low mintages have made all 3-dollar coins at least scarce, with many rare and some excessively so. Within the series is one of our nation’s most storied rare coins, the issue of 1870-S. When the Philadelphia Mint sent the San Francisco Mint dies for the 1870 3-dollar coin, the dies were lacking the S mintmark. The dies were returned to Philadelphia to correct the mistake. However, along with the dies was a note informing Philadelphia that the San Francisco coiner, J.B. Harmstead, had engraved an S into one die and minted one coin to be placed in the cornerstone of the new Mint building. In 1911 an 1870-S 3-dollar piece was presented in an auction. With the coin was a note stating “This 3-dollar piece is a duplicate of one under the corner stone of the SF Mint, and the only one in existence. J.B. Harmstead”. In October of 1982 this coin was again sold at auction and brought for $687,500.
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