The bronze two-cent piece was one of the shortest-lived and most-interesting denominations of U.S. coinage, with a production that lasted from 1864 to 1873 only. The coins’ existence stemmed from the economic turmoil surrounding the Civil War.
By 1862, popular hoarding of all coins led to a shortage of small change. Part of the government solution to this shortage was the two-cent piece, authorized by the Coinage Act of 1864. This Act changed the composition of the Indian cent from copper-nickel alloy to bronze, and outlawed the issuance of privately made tokens (“Civil War Tokens”) that had replaced the hoarded coins. The large-scale production of new bronze cents and two-cent coins was an effort to facilitate trade, shore up the money supply, and allow businesses to function.
The two-cent piece was designed by U.S. Mint Chief Engraver James B. Longacre. Longacre had begun preparing test designs and samples for the new denomination in 1863. He initially considered a portrait of George Washington for the design, but eventually settled on a United States escutcheon as the main design element. The motto IN GOD WE TRUST appears on a ribbon above. The two-cent piece was the first U.S. coin to bear this motto, which has since come to appear on all U.S. coins.
The new coin was initially popular – mintages in 1864 and 1865 were large, and the coins circulated widely. Examples from these first two years are the most commonly encountered today. The denomination’s popularity didn’t last, however. After War’s end, the hoarding of cents stopped. This, combined with the introduction of copper-nickel three- and five-cent pieces in 1865 and 1866, made the two-cent denomination superfluous. Mintages begin a steady decline, falling off in each successive year, until only 65,000 were made dated 1872.
Over one-third of the two-cent pieces made between 1864 and 1873 were later redeemed by the Treasury, and subsequently melted. These melted coins were recoined into Indian cents. All two-cent pieces were made at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; as a result, none have mintmarks. The 1873-dated examples were proof-only issues made for collectors, in very small quantities. The 1873 is the scarcest coin in the set. Other scarce coins include the 1864 with smaller IN GOD WE TRUST motto, made from a distinctly different prototype die; the 1867 doubled die variety, and the 1872.
Two-cent pieces are relatively inexpensive, considering their availability and unusual history. The early dates are interesting mementos of the waning days of the Civil War, and the series is challenging but still relatively affordable, compared to other coins of the same era. Assembling a complete set of circulation strikes, especially in nice condition, is a rewarding pursuit for the coin collector.