Senator Daniel Stevens Dickinson (Figure 1), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, sponsored the bill that eventually became the Postal Act of March 3, 1851, effective July 1, 1851. This act reduced the domestic postal rate by 40 percent. Three cents per half ounce was the postage rate for a piece of mail carried up to 3,000 miles to another post office. The rate for a piece of mail carried more than 3,000 miles was 6 cents per half ounce However, this rate was only for pre-paid mail. For mail sent collect, which was the usual practice at the time, the rate remained 5 cents and 10 cents per half ounce respectively. This 40 percent discount was intended to induce postal patrons to pre-pay mail.
Figure 1. Senator Daniel Stevens Dickinson.
To meet this new rate, the Post Office was authorized to issue a new 3-cent stamp (Figure 2) and stamps of other denominations as deemed appropriate. (They decided to issue 1-cent and 12-cent stamps at the same time, but not 6-cent stamps, as the 6-cent rate was only for letters over 3,000 miles. Such letters were few and could be paid by two 3-cent stamps.)
Figure 2. 3-cent Washington stamp, issue of 1851.
However, silver coinage was in short supply from around 1847. The reason for the disappearance of most silver coins was that the value of their silver content significantly exceeded their face value. Speculators paid premiums for these coins, and then typically took them to New Orleans where they were melted into bullion. The bullion was then usually shipped to France where they could be sold at a 20 percent profit. Most of the coins that were left in wide circulation were larger copper cents (Figure 3). Congress later passed the Coinage Act of 1853, lowering the silver content of silver coins.
Figure 3. These coins were typical of the era, and are shown in relative size. Until the 3-cent trime was issued, previous silver coins contained more value in silver than the face value of the coin; hence vast quantities were melted, causing a coin shortage (except for the 1-cent copper penny, which weighed 11 grams). The new trime weighed ¾ gram; the penny weighed 15 times more.
Many philatelists may not know that Section 11 of the same Postal Act of 1851 made it “lawful to coin at the mint and its branches, a piece of the denomination and legal value of three cents, or three hundredths of a dollar, to be composed of three-fourths silver and one-fourth copper.” These coins (Figure 4) came to be known as “trimes” (rhymes with dimes), “Longacre’s trimes” (after the designer and engraver James B. Longacre) or “fish scales” (because of how small and thin they were).
Figure 4. 1852 trime, obverse and reverse.
Did the issuance of the 3-cent trime coin help to bolster the sales of the 3-cent stamp (Figure 5)? We must remember that the Postal Act of March 3, 1851, called for the minting of the first 3-cent coin, so the government must have believed this would facilitate the sale of 3-cent stamps. So, did this new coin – the trime – help to save the 3-cent Washington stamp of 1851?
Figure 5. This cover, from Chillicothe, Ohio, was used on the first day of issue of the 3-cent 1851 stamp. The stamp is a Scott 10 in the orange brown shade.
Don Getzin is a retired chemistry professor who specializes in the study of the U.S. 3-cent stamp of 1851. He is an active member of The Collectors Club, U.S. Philatelic Classics Society and the Hamilton Township Philatelic Society, to name a few. His research and findings have been published in several issues of The Chronicle of the U.S. Philatelic Classics Society.
Wade Saadi is past president of the APS, U.S. Philatelic Classics Society, and the Collectors Club of New York. He is the editor of the 1851 section of The Chronicle of the U.S. Classic Postal Issues.
For Further Learning
Recommendations from the APRL research staff:
Arch, Brad. “1851 & 1857 Period Domestic Rate Illustrated Covers,” New Jersey Postal History (September 1993).
Lizotte, Bill. “Postage Rates on Stampless Covers: Postal Act of 1845 and Postal Act of 1851,” Vermont Philatelist (November 2006).
Milgram, James W. “Prepaid Stampless Covers Showing 1851-55 Transcontinental Rates,” Chronicle (May 2013).
O’Reilly, Michael C. “July 1, 1851 Stampless First Day of Rate Covers,” Chronicle (May 1979).
Skinner, Hubert C. and Charles J. Peterson (editors). The 1851 Issue of United States Stamps (New Orleans, LA: U.S. Philatelic Classics Society, Inc., 2006). [G370 1 .D31 3 E34 2006]