One of the things that I find most interesting about antiques and older parts of our history is the unexpected item or information that I would have never guessed was common in the past. Last time I wrote this column I talked about some of the unusual coins that were in circulation in the 1850’s and yet have no place in our commerce today, the half cent and the gold dollar coin. Now I would like to share another coin that made sense in a different time and place, but that seems very odd today – a copper coin worth two cents! The two-cent denomination was first introduced a short while after the start of the Civil War in 1861.
When hostilities began between the north and south, it was only the final phase of years of arguing and economic concerns. By 1862 the nation was truly split apart and the silver and gold coins were worth more for their metal content than their face value, and they soon disappeared from circulation. The need for small change was met by Indian head cents that had been introduced in 1859 and paper fractional currency notes of denominations from 3 cents to 50 cents (another bit of history that has disappeared). Finally in 1864 Congress took action to aid the struggle of shoppers and merchants to deal with small change by authorizing a change in the composition of the1-cent coin as well as the striking of the 2-cent coins. Nearly 20 million were struck that first year, but soon other needed coins were minted, such as the nickel five-cent piece in 1866, reducing the need for the two-cent denomination and in 1872 the last circulating two-cent coins were struck.
These two-cent coins seen for just nine years were the first and only time this denomination was struck by the U.S. Mint, but they represent another important step in our coinage – they were the first time the inscription IN GOD WE TRUST was used on our money. The Mint designed the coin with a shield on the obverse in front of two crossed arrows with laurel branches on either side. Above the shield is a ribbon with that motto inscribed on it. Credit for the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, which became our national motto in 1956 by an act of Congress, is commonly given to Baptist minister Mark Watkinson who wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury suggesting that U.S. coins bear some recognition of God. Most every coin design since has included this motto, but it was over 90 years before Congress agreed that it become a permanent witness to every transaction involving the use of tangible American money. No doubt that today we would hear a strong outcry if those special words did not appear on our coins and currency.
If you would like to see and hold some actual two-cent coins from the last years of the Civil War, stop by Red Door Antiques on the north side of the square and I will be glad to show you the first coins to show our collective trust in God. We are open Friday and Saturday from 10:00 to 4:00, or by appointment, and everything we show and sell has a story to tell — if you have time to listen “to the way it was….”.