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US Currency under .50 – Notes and coins from the US Mint you likely never knew existed

Posted by mandyf on October 19, 2011

Did you know that the US Mint has made paper currency up to the denomination of a $100,000 bill? The $100,000 was never made for public use, but the $ 10,000 bill was along with now defunct denominations all the way down to $500. While you would be nuts to try to spend any of the large denomination bills in store given their value and rarity, if you wanted to, you could actually present them as payment. Just because they are no longer made or circulated doesn’t mean they will no longer be honored. Of course, as soon as they hit a bank, assuming everyone is doing the legal thing, they will be turned over to the US Mint who will then either destroy the note or keep it vaulted as a commemorative piece which will never be re-circulated.

While we spend a lot of time digging into the large denomination bills because the bigger the number is the more fun it seems to be,  there are some smaller denomination pieces of currency that go around which are very hard to find as well, and sometimes as valuable or even more valuable than larger denominations. Hence, this time around we will deal with the low denominations – just 50 cents and under. (If you would like to know about the currency from $500 and up, a post on rare paper currency of the larger denominations is on site).

At one point, there were nine different denomination bills/coins valued at or under $0.50. A few were done away with fairly quickly due to inflation devaluing them too much, while others were too similar to more popular denominations making the demand for them too low to legitimize printing. As most people know, the lowest denomination bill is now $1 and the more popular low denominations that were originally minted as bills were switched over to coinage.

Where possible, photos of each denomination will be provided. With many denominations, it is impossible to know how many are left in general circulation, however, for bills issued over the last hundred years, the US Mint does have statistics regarding how many have not been turned in for destruction or removal from circulation based on missing serial numbers. One thing to keep in mind regarding that information is that the statistics from the Mint may say 1,000 bills are unaccounted for, but that does not mean 1,000 bills still exist. Hard as it may be to swallow, bills were otherwise damaged, destroyed or lost before being called in. As many large denomination bills were used to facilitate drug trafficking, quite a few left the US borders and then never made it back.

US half cent (front)

In 1792, the half cent coin was first minted. The half cent was about the size of the modern day US quarter, it was made of 100% copper, and went through several variations before it was discontinued in 1857. Of interest to collectors, all half cent pieces were pressed at the Philadelphia Mint, so if you see any that have a press mark of any kind, it’s a fraud. The changes the half cent went through are:

1793 – Liberty Cap to the left

1794-1797 – Liberty Cap to the right (1797 coin – some had a gripped or milled edge, some read “Two Hundred For A Dollar”)

1798-1799 – None minted

US half cent back

1800-1808 – Draped Bust

1809-1835 – Classic Head (As shown in the photo here)

1836-1849 – Only Proofs and re-strikes were produced — NO new half cent coins were freshly pressed for circulation.

1849-1857 – Braided Hair variation

1864 US two cent coin

From 1864-1873, the US two cent piece was minted. The coin measured about the same dimensions as the current US quarter and was made of copper (95%) with tin and zinc making up the remaining 5%. The two cent piece is often very popular among collectors because it was the first US coin in which the motto “In God We Trust” appeared on. In 1864, around 19.5 million two cent pieces were minted, but by 1872 that had fallen to 65,000, and then again to just 1,000 proofs in 1873. While these are not terribly difficult to find, there are a number of variations including die errors, double dies, large motto and small motto versions, die cracks, and seemingly legions of assorted “other” minting errors. All told, roughly 46 million two cent coins were pressed, but to find them in true collector grade condition is a challenge.

US 20 cent piece

The US twenty cent coin, aka 20 cent piece, is actually one of the tougher coins the US Mint has produced to come by – particularly in excellent shape or better. In some form, the coin was minted for 4 years (1875-1878), however only the first two years were for coins that made it into general circulation. The last two years of pressings were strictly proofs, and even then, only 950 sets were pressed between the two years. So far as general circulation goes, only 1,349,930 were ever minted. They are rare enough that the 1876 CC 20 cent piece sold for $460,000 at auction in 2009. Then again, only 12 of these are known to exist for sure, and another 8, maybe dozen, are believed to still be out there somewhere. Also of interest, the bulk of these were melted down for their silver, and it is one of the few coins that was pressed at the Carson City mint before being closed down.


3 cent note

Known as the Three Cent Change Note, there was an actual piece of paper currency the US Mint produced that was valued at only 3 cents. This was the smallest denomination bill the US Mint ever printed, and for practical reasons likely ever will print. One and two cent coins were out, but few people actually had them at the time. To understand the how and why of a three cent note, you just have to know they first appeared in 1865 – war time measures. Three cent silver pieces, aka trimes, were obviously being hoarded for their silver, so few were actually circulating. Private individuals were issuing their own change notes in the 3 cent denomination, but the Federal Government hated that because it made large scale commerce a nightmare. The three cent note seemed like the perfect answer. Between 1/23/1865 and 4/5/1865, over 20 million of these were produced – then discontinued entirely in favor of three cent coin made of copper and nickel. Today, one of these 3 cent notes in above average condition can be had for about $125.00.

1859 3 cent coin

The three cent coin has quite a history. First produced in 1851, the three cent silver was 75% silver and 25% copper. This mix gave the coin value, but not enough silver content to be worth the hassle of melting down for the silver. They were smaller than the US dime circulated today and weighed only 4/5 of a gram which makes it the lightest US coin ever minted. The coin wasn’t popular, but the Treasury wanted it to be used more widely. The answer was to up the silver content to 90%, which they did finally do in 1854. A few small changes were made to distinguish the “high silver” coin from the older model which included adding an olive sprig, the Roman numeral III and two lines bordering the star rather than one. In 1859, the lines bordering the star were reduced to one again because of a striking problem. Although discontinued in 1873, proof sets were struck.

3 cent nickel

Part of this had to do with the 3 cent nickel being produced during the war. The three cent nickel was never intended to be permanent, but rather a wartime measure. They were first struck in 1865, but were popular enough to continue being minted until 1889. Had someone done a better job of planning and made the silver dime more distinctive from the three cent nickel, it may have remained in use.

5 cent note

The five cent note was known as a postage note because the photo used for the bill was the same as a five cent postage stamp. Between 1862 and 1876, millions of these notes were produced. The bulk were recalled by the US Mint and exchanged for silver, but some managed to survive in private hands for a number of years. Today, these go for around $325 dollars each, but some can go exponentially higher depending on year and condition. The ten cent note was basically the same, as were the 25 and 50 cent fractional notes the US mint issued. Postage currency, as it was known, was not actually legal tender actually. They could be saved up and exchanged for legal tender so long as it was for $5 or more. Anything lower than that was not considered worth the time and effort.

10 cent note

The counterfeiting of the 1862 pressing of these notes was insane. They were printed in sheets with perforations, much like a sheet of stamps today. The owner of the sheet would simply tear off as much as they needed and fold the sheet back up for storage until it ran out. The first run colors are bland, the patterns were easy to copy, and counterfeiters simply had a field day with them. In 1863, the colors were made more vibrant, the perforated sheets had been done away with as well. This had little or nothing to do with counterfeiting though. The problem was that the perforated presses could not be run enough to meet demand. In response to that, the notes were run in sheets and then cut away using scissors – yes – actual scissors. This made for a large inconsistency in the dimensions of the notes at times, but at least they were meeting demand.

15 cent note

Another change was that they included printing on the reverse side of the notes to help add an extra layer of protection against counterfeiting. The bulk of these notes, particularly from 1863 and beyond, are not too terribly hard to come by and can be had fairly inexpensively. If you are not terribly picky about condition, you can get a sample of each one for about $25 or less (per sample) with a fair amount of ease.

25 cent note

What can be confusing for non-collectors is that the 1862 through 1876 issues were technically known as Postage Stamp Currency. Postal Notes were issued from 1883-1894. In between, they were technically being called fractional notes. Aside from appearance, they were all basically the same thing aside from nomenclature. That and when Spencer M. Clark, the first superintendent of the National Currency Bureau, had his portrait placed on notes which soon after became a major no-no.

50 cent note

Aside from a few notable exceptions, you can actually get your hands on the bulk of these coins and bills as a collector/investor. For most people, the 1876 CC 20 cent piece is out of reach, but if you are willing to go with a different year, one can be had usually. You will want to pay attention to the difference between private, state and federal issues as each is considerably different and therefore carries very different values.


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