In Cheesie Mack Is Not a Genius or Anything, my grandfather Gumpy gave me a math problem while he was tapping his fingers together. Here’s what it was:
“Let’s say (tap, tap) there’s eighty-three cents in my pocket,” he said. “What’s the fewest number of coins I could have?”
“United States coins?” I asked.
He nodded (tap, tap).
I thought for a few seconds and answered, “Four.”
His forehead wrinkled up like he was surprised at me. “Nope. Six. A half-dollar, a quarter, a nickel, and three pennies.”
But I proved I was right . . . and he was amazed.
Did you figure it out?
Most kids think the correct answer is seven: three quarters, a nickel, and three pennies.
But that’s wrong because most kids don’t even think about a half dollar because they usually never see one. (I can’t remember the last time I held a half dollar!) But Gumpy knew about half dollars. That’s why he thought the answer was six.
So why is the correct answer four coins? Because in the 19th Century—at two different times, 1851-1873 and 1865-1889—the United States minted three-cent coins. I learned that when I was researching the 1909 Lincoln Cent that Georgie and I found in his basement.
I have never seen a three-cent coin for real.
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Update: Look what I got in the mail!
Here’s what was in the letter. I made the image much, much larger so the details are visible. You can see that it’s not the same as the three-cent coin above. The USA made two different designs in the 19th century. And now I actually own one. How cool is that?!