Although the notion of a three-cent piece strikes us as strange today, in 1851 the denomination actually seemed like a good idea to members of Congress and even to members of the public. It did serve a purpose for a time. The impetus for this coin—the smallest ever issued by Uncle Sam in terms of weight and thickness—was twofold. It was “fathered,” so to speak, by the California Gold Rush and “mothered” by the nation’s postal system.
Following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, thousands of fortune-seekers swarmed to California. The “Forty-Niners” and others who followed them mined enormous quantities of gold. That, in turn, had a direct impact on U.S. coinage: The massive new supplies of gold depressed that metal’s value in relation to silver, leading to widespread hoarding of silver coins. Put another way, a rapid rise occurred in the price of silver, as figured in gold dollars. It became profitable to hoard and melt silver coins, since they were worth more as metal than as money. Conversely, hardly anyone was bringing newly mined silver to the Mint for conversion into coinage, as had been the practice up to then.