The Two Cent Piece is one of the short lived, odd denominations of the American monetary system. Struck from 1864 to 1873, these copper pieces never seemed to fit anywhere and experienced declining annual mintages until the series was discontinued. Only the 20 cent piece, being another odd denomination, was struck for a shorter period of time. The Two Cent Piece does hold an important place in history as the first coin struck for circulation that carried the motto “In God We Trust.” This motto was added to other denominations and still remains present within all circulating coins of the modern era.
The two cent piece was not included in the original Coinage Act of 1792, but proposals for such a denomination would occur early in the 19th century. The earliest proposal came in 1806 when a bill was introduced in Congress by Senator Tracy for the coinage of both two cent pieces as well as twenty cent pieces (called “double dimes”). The proposed metal was to consist of 6.4 grains of silver and 24.3 grains of copper. The bill did pass the Senate in early 1807 but eventually died in the House. The concept was deemed to be too expensive to produce and unlikely to be accepted by the general public.
This was the first of several proposals for a so-called billion coinage, a concept that was suggested throughout the 19th century, made it into a number of patterns, but never into a circulating coinage. The first of these patterns for the two cent denomination were struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 1836, again in a billion alloy, this time consisting of ten percent silver and 90 percent copper. The concept failed once again, this time because Mint Director Peale proved that the alloy could easily be counterfeited. Counterfeiting was a huge problem in the 19th century, and a coin which could easily be counterfeited with cheap materials was immediately considered unfit for coinage.
The third attempt to introduce the denomination, however, would reach fruition. Mint Director James Pollock proposed the introduction of a two cent piece in 1863, and the coinage act of April 22, 1864 officially added the denomination to the American monetary system. The same act also altered the composition of the one cent piece from copper-nickel (which had been hoarded on a massive scale since the start of the American Civil War) to bronze, the same alloy as the new two cent piece. Although patterns struck in 1863 and 1864 featured various designs (including one with the head of George Washington on the obverse), it was a design by James Barton Longacre that would eventually be made into coinage. Longacre designed most of the circulating coinage introduced in the 1850’s and 1860’s while he was the Chief Engraver at the United States.
The obverse of the Two Cent Piece features a heraldic shield, with a scroll above it, displaying for the first time ever the motto IN GOD WE TRUST. A pair of arrows and an olive branch are seen next to the shield. The date is below the shield, slightly curved. This obverse design is virtually identical to that of the shield nickel, which would be produced for circulation starting in 1866. The reverse design of the coin shows UNITED STATES OF AMERICA around a wreath of various plants. A large 2 and the word CENTS are placed inside the wreath. The design of both obverse and reverse would remain unchanged until the end of the series in 1873.
Production of the two cent piece commenced at the Philadelphia Mint in 1864, with a total output of almost twenty million coins. These entered circulation and were somewhat accepted by the general public, although they would never become hugely popular. Production numbers dropped sharply over the next few years. In the final year of production for circulation, 1872, only 65,000 pieces were struck. The next Mint Act, dated February 12, 1873, discontinued a number of denominations, including the two cent piece. The coins would slowly disappear from circulation over the next few years and were soon forgotten by the public.
Interestingly enough, in the 1970s, a proposal was made to reintroduce the two cent piece. The coins were to be used on a large scale to make everyday transactions easier. Whether or not Congress did some research into the earlier two cent piece, the idea never made it far, and it would be unlikely that the coin would have been accepted by the contemporary general public. Perhaps the two dollar bill can serve as an example for this. While still being produced, they are hardly ever seen in circulation and were never widely used in everyday commerce. It is likely that another two cent coin would have had the same fate.