The $3 gold piece is one of our country’s scarcest and most fascinating gold coins. While the coin never caught on with the general public, it has been a coveted collectible since the 19th century. Numismatists have always been drawn to the $3 “princess” due to its unusual denomination, extreme rarity, and attractive design.
This unusual gold piece can trace its roots to 1845, when the federal government authorized the first postage stamps. The price per stamp was initially five cents, but this rate was considered too high. To spur stamp purchases, the unit price was lowered to three cents in 1851. Simultaneously a 3¢ silver coin was introduced to make buying stamps easier. The price reduction helped postage stamps gain traction with the public and usage flourished in the early and mid-1850s. The US Mint followed suit by striking over 35,000,000 three cent silver coins from 1851-1853.
Given the popularity of three cent stamps and their corresponding silver coins, politicians began contemplating a $3 gold coin. Not only would the coin help facilitate buying sheets of stamps, but bankers could also use them to trade for rolls of 3¢ coins. Furthermore, there was a temporary surplus of gold flowing in from the California gold rush and the Mint was looking for new ways to covert this metal into coin.
Once Congress approved the new $3 gold piece in early 1853, US Mint Chief Engraver James Longacre began work on the coin’s design. He faced a challenge with the $3 coin, as he needed to clearly differentiate it from the quarter eagle and half eagle. His proposed solution was to make the coin large and flat—clearly different in size from the quarter eagle—and give it a totally unique motif. His goal was to make the design uniquely American with an Indian princess on the obverse and a wreath of corn, wheat, cotton and tobacco on the reverse.
Production began in 1854 and started strong; over 30% of all $3 coins ever struck were minted in 1854. Unfortunately these large mintages were the result of Pollyannaish optimism, not actual demand. The public largely rejected the coin, deeming it too similar in size to the half eagle. It has also been questioned whether the average American typically bought sheets of stamps—after all, $3 was still a sizeable amount of money at the time. In the following years mintages slumped tremendously and would never return to their 1854 levels.
Despite the lukewarm reception, the Philadelphia mint continued to produce $3 coins for another 35 years. Mintages were anemic; in many years fewer than 5000 pieces were struck. Dies for the $3 coin were sent to the branch mints repeatedly in the 1850s and 1860s, but they refused to strike the coins. Demand was so low that in 1875 and 1876, only a small number of proofs were made for collectors—no coins were made for circulation. According to mint records, 49,087 $3 pieces were melted in the 1890s.
Finally, in the 1889, the $3 gold piece was quietly discontinued with a paltry mintage of 2300 pieces that year. Now officially obsolete, the coin’s value as a collectible began to climb. In the 1920s, for example, most 19th century gold coins were only worth face value but $3 pieces were already trading for sizeable premiums. US gold coin collecting was still in its infancy, but the $3 “princess” was one of the first items to be actively pursued with numismatists.