The seemingly odd $3 Gold Coin denomination was a product of the times, and its uniqueness and historical implication adds to the enthusiasm for collecting great specimens in the series. The 1850s was an era when the United States was expanding economically beyond its borders, and joined the worldwide move to uniform postage rates and printed stamps. The Congressional Act of March 3, 1845 had authorized the first U.S. postage stamps, and set the local prepaid letter rate at five cents. This set the stage for a close connection between postal and coinage history.

Then, in 1851, the postage rate was reduced to three cents by legislation that simultaneously commenced the tiny three-cent silver coinage supposedly for public convenience. Because the large copper cents then in circulation were cumbersome and unpopular, the new denomination was expected to facilitate the purchase of stamps. This political reasoning carried over when the Mint Act of February 21, 1853 authorized a three-dollar gold coin. Congress and Mint Director Robert Maskell Patterson were convinced that the new coin would speed purchases of three-cent stamps by the sheet and of the exchange for silver three-cent coins in roll quantities. Unfortunately, at no time during the 35-year span of issuing this intriguing $3 denomination did public demand justify these hopes.

The three dollar gold piece was the first time that the Mint’s chief engraver, James B. Longacre, the coin’s designer, had been allowed to choose a design for a coin issue. Although he had designed the three-cent piece and other issues before, he had been told what to put on those pieces. Longacre was initially perplexed as to what to put on the coin, but wanted to diverge from the typically dictated adaptations of Roman or Greek art, and create something truly American. He once wrote:

“From the copper shores of Lake Superior to the silver mountains of Potosi, from the Ojibwa to the Araucanian, the feathered tiara is a characteristic of the primitiveness of our hemisphere as the turban is of the Asiatic.”

Thus Chief Engraver Longacre chose an “Indian Princess” for his obverse subject. It was not a Native American profile, but actually a profile modeled after the Greco-Roman Venus Accroupie statue then in a Philadelphia museum. Longacre used this distinctive sharp-nosed profile from his gold dollar Liberty of 1849. His subject for Liberty wore a feathered headdress of equal-sized plumes with a band bearing LIBERTY in raised letters, surrounded by the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The notion of such headdresses is supported by early drawings of American Indians and was accepted by engravers and medalists of the day as a design element to suggest “America.”

Longacre’s reverse depicted a wreath of tobacco, wheat, corn and cotton with a plant at top bearing two conical seed masses, surrounding its denomination 3 DOLLARS and the date. There are two boldly different reverse types, the small “DOLLARS” appearing only in 1854 and the large “DOLLARS” on coins of 1855-89.

In 1854 only, the word DOLLARS is in much smaller letters than in later years.

A total of just over 535,000 pieces were issued, along with 2058 proofs. The first coins struck were the 15 proofs of 1854. Regular coinage began on May 1, and that first year saw 138,618 pieces struck at Philadelphia, 1,120 at Dahlonega (D), and 24,000 at New Orleans (O). These two branch mints would strike coins only in 1854. San Francisco produced the three-dollar denomination in 1855, 1856, and 1857, again in 1860, and apparently one final piece in 1870.

You can find a few low mintage issues in any U.S. coin series that highlight great rarities. Three-dollar gold coinage of 1854-1889 have so many low-mintage dates that one could argue that the entire series may be called rare. In mint state, the 1878 is the most common date, followed by the 1879, 1888, 1854, 1889 and 1874 issues. Every other date is very rare in high grade, particularly 1858, 1865, 1873 Closed 3 and all the San Francisco issues. Minor demand led to minuscule mintages in the later years. Proof coins prior to 1859 are extremely rare and more difficult to find than the proof-only issues of 1873 Open 3, 1875 and 1876, but many dates are even rarer in the higher mint state grades. This is because at least some proofs were saved by well-heeled collectors, while few collectors showed any interest in higher-grade business strikes of gold coins.

The rarest date of all is the unique 1870-S, of which only one example was struck for inclusion in the new Mint’s cornerstone. Either the coin escaped, or a second was struck as a pocket piece for San Francisco Mint Coiner J. B. Harmstead. In any event, one coin showing traces of jewelry use surfaced in the numismatic market in 1907, and it was sold to prominent collector William H. Woodin, and subsequently owned and pedigreed to Waldo Newcomer, Virgil Brand and Louis Eliasberg.

The three-dollar denomination expired in 1889 without fanfare along with the gold dollar and nickel three-cent piece. Its unpopular odd denomination makes this beautiful gold series evermore popular with collectors today.