This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
>> Subscribe today!
The dime just might be the most overlooked of all the denominations of the United States today. It’s very possible that this situation is because of its low purchasing power, its small size or both. For whatever reason, small in the modern coin market rarely seems to be as popular as large coins like dollars or double eagles.
Of course there is a significant plus for a collector looking for good values. Without frequent periods of high demand to wake up the market, the prices of many dimes can be kind of sleepy. When you look to buy dimes, there is a good chance you are getting good values. That makes a type collection of dimes a possible group most hobbyists can assemble and that is true even in upper grades.
The dime despite a lack of popularity has always been seen as an important part of the coins of the United States. The dime was a logical denomination and that saw it approved in the initial authorizations for coins of the United States on April 2, 1792. It was the tenth part of a dollar. With a decimal system, that made it an important coin.
The approval of denominations still left a great deal to be done before any coins could be produced. At the top of that list was the establishment of a Mint where the newly approved coins could be made. That task fell to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson who by virtue of being Secretary of State was the man responsible for a Mint. Jefferson took the bull by the horns and a Mint was quickly established and while not perfectly outfitted was ready to begin coin production in relatively early 1793.
While that was going on, there was some indication as to the importance of the dime and other lower denominations. There was a man named Harper in Philadelphia who was a sawmaker in his regular job, but he also operated basically as an unofficial mint for the United States. In fact, Jefferson at one time even referred to his activity as “the mint.”
It was in the Harper operation while a mint was being established that a mintage of a believed 1,500 1792 half dimes took place. The famous 1792 half disme might have had company in the form of a disme as a pattern was produced. The reason there were no dismes actually struck is perhaps because of a lack of silver or that the facility was not up to the task. There could have been other reasons as well but we do know that when President Washington addressed the Congress on the matter he explained that half dismes had been produced first as the nation needed lower denominations.
When the Mint opened its doors in 1793 the denomination did not matter as the first coin production could be only copper issues. The reason was that the officials were required to post a $10,000 bond before there could be any gold or silver coin production and the officials involved were not willing or unable to post the bond. That presented Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson with a new problem and while he negotiated a compromise on the bond, the Mint was limited to the production of copper half cents and large cents.
The situation was settled in 1794 and that opened the door to the production of gold and silver coins. It is no surprise that they decided to make silver issues first, but the decision to start with dollars has to be seen as somewhat surprising on a couple of counts. The first is the expressed need for small coins explained by Washington back in 1792. The second is that they knew that the equipment they had was not able to produce a coin larger than a half dollar. The required equipment for dollars would arrive the following year, but in light of the fact that they knew that dollars were too large for their equipment, the decision to go ahead with dollars anyway is all the more surprising.
The possible reason for the decision centers around a policy that would cause problems as the years passed. The Mint at the time would allow those providing the gold or silver to select the denominations to be made from their metal. As it turned out, those bringing in the metal would almost always select higher denominations. We do not know that this was the case in 1794, but it certainly was odd that the first denominations to be produced in that year were dollars and half dollars and not half dimes and dimes.
Whatever the reason, the decision to try dollars was probably seen later as a mistake as the total mintage of the first 1794 silver dollar was a mere 1,758 pieces. No one believes that the idea was to make just 1,758 coins and the best guess is that some higher number, probably at least 2,000 pieces was tried, but that only 1,758 examples could meet what were certainly rather lax quality standards. That seems logical and the known examples of the 1794 dollar, which number perhaps 135, tend to support that belief as the average 1794 dollar is poorly struck, sometimes not perfectly aligned and generally has other problems all suggesting they were trying to make a coin without adequate equipment.
Possibly even more surprising was that the second denomination to be produced was the half dollar. That activity also seems to have not gone perfectly with the final production being just under 25,000 pieces. That said, it certainly appears to have gone better than the attempt at silver dollars.
The 1795 production saw additional numbers of denominations already produced such as the dollar and the introduction of the first gold coins. That was apparently enough to keep the Mint busy and it never got around to dimes and quarters, which were the two silver denomination not yet produced.
In 1796 it was finally time for the dime and quarter. By that time the original Flowing Hair design used in 1794 and 1795 had already changed, so the first dimes of 1796 would be the Draped Bust obverse and small eagle reverse. Technically they are the first type of dimes, but even they are not identical as the 1796 had 15 stars while the 1797 would have either 13 or 16.
The mintages of the 1796 and 1797 dimes were 22,135 and 25,251, respectively, which while not large at the time was not out of the question. The price of the two today is $2,850 for a G-4 1796 and $3,000 for a G-4 1797 with 13 or and $2,850 with 16 stars. In MS-60 both dates and every possible star combination are priced right around $25,000.
There are some interesting features as despite no known excitement as coins had been being made for years, the 1796 dime sometimes has prooflike surfaces, causing some to suggest that they might have been intended as presentation pieces. What needs to be remembered, however, is that numbers are still small and that is especially true in top grades.
The average dime of 1796 or 1797 is not prooflike and oftentimes in addition to being heavily circulated will have dull surfaces. In addition, there are other issues as many were not struck sharply and some also have adjustment marks all of which make finding a nice example in any grade more of a challenge than might be expected.
The design was changed in 1798 to the Robert Scot Draped Bust obverse and large Heraldic eagle reverse type. The eagle was modeled after the Great Seal of the United States having first appeared on the 1796 quarter eagle. This would be the design through 1807 and the added years of production makes for a better supply today than we have for the first type, putting a G-4 1798 large “8” at $725 and an MS-60 at $8,850. Since the type was struck through 1807, collectors can choose a $575 G-4 1807, or an MS-60 1807 at $6,850.
In circulated grades the dates most likely encountered are the 1805 and 1807, but many will have problems as they received sometimes heavy wear resulting not only in a loss of features but also nicks or other damage. In the case of Mint State examples the same two years are the most likely to be found with others frequently being very rarely seen. Even when an example of any date is seen the probability is that it will come with a weak strike.
There would be no dime production in 1808 as like other denominations production was subject to demand from those bringing in the metal and a host of other factors. When the next dime was produced it would be 1809 and the design would be the Capped Bust design created by John Reich, which had first appeared on the half dollar in 1807. The reverse has a perched eagle with a shield on its breast grasping arrows and an olive branch.
The new type would be produced on and off until 1828 and even though not produced every year there were a couple of mintages of more than 1 million and a number of others that were at least higher than the totals for any year of a previous type and that makes the Capped Bust dime an available type for as little as roughly $39 in G-4 while an available MS-60 will be around $1,100 with an MS-65 starting at $6,850.
There were revision made with some of the 1828 dimes, especially in the border details and that produced a new type that would last through 1837. The type is available again at modest prices starting around $36 in G-4 for the most available dates while an MS-60 will be at least $775 and an MS-65 at least $6,850. Although generally well struck the type like virtually any coin from the era is tough to locate in truly top grades like MS-65.
Starting in 1837 at Philadelphia and 1838 at the new facility in New Orleans the Christian Gobrecht Seated Liberty design made its debut. The obverse basically was a repeat of the Gobrecht dollar obverse of 1836 and for the first coins until 1838 at Philadelphia and 1839 at New Orleans the obverse had no stars. That makes for a two date type with the 1837 from Philadelphia also having large and small dates. The most available is the large date 1837 which is currently $40 in G-4 although any 1837 will be roughly the same in upper grades at $1,100 in MS-60 and $6,500 in MS-65. The type in top grades is very attractive as without stars they can have a cameo-like appearance although the 1838-O tends to not be as nice especially in their luster.
The Seated Liberty dime was really a work in progress as was seen when the stars were added as that change would create a type but one that would only last through some of the 1840 mintage before there was still another change with drapery being added to the elbow of Liberty. The no drapery but with stars type had mintages of over 1 million, making them available today for as little as $16 in G-4 while an MS-60 of the most available dates will start at roughly $280 while an MS-65 will be at least $3,000. With the mintages the type is available in all grades although strikes can vary.
Starting with some of the 1840 mintage there was a makeover by Robert Ball Hughes that saw the addition of drapery while the shield that had leaned to the left would now lean slightly to the right. That would actually fix the design for over a decade making examples of the type starting around $16 in G-4 with an MS-60 at roughly $260 and an MS-65 at $2,600.
There would be a change in 1853 brought about not by artistic concerns but rather the fact that the dime like other silver denominations except the dollar had a slight reduction in their silver content. That had been required as the discovery of gold in California had changed the traditional gold-to-silver ratio, making the cost of production of the silver issues greater than their face value.
The public quickly figured that out and began hoarding, causing a national coin shortage. Once the slight weight reduction was approved there was a feeling the new coins had to be different and in the case of the dimes that meant the addition of arrows on either side of the date. The type would last 1853 through 1855 and is available thanks to large mintages with a G-4 at $8 while an MS-60 is $330 for the most available with an MS-65 starting at $2,500. Like other denominations of the same period the coins were made in large numbers and the resulting haste made for indifferent quality with weak strikes and some cases where dies were used too long.
After 1855 the arrows were removed with the previous design returning. That makes it an option as to whether or not you want to add an example from the period after 1855 until 1860 when another change took place. If you do want an example, they are available for $14 in G-4, $250 in MS-60 and $2,600 in MS-60.
Starting in 1860 or 1861 in the case of issues from San Francisco the design changed again with “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” replacing the stars on the obverse. The delay in San Francisco was probably because of the fact that the dies being made in Philadelphia had to be shipped to the West Coast and that took time.
The new type would last through some of the 1873 mintage, making it available despite the fact that there were sometimes very low mintages especially at Philadelphia during the Civil War period. A G-4 is just $15 in the case of an available date while an MS-60 might be found for around $150 with an MS-65 being as little as $1,250. Proof-65 examples can be had for as little as $1,400. Because collectors from the 19th century right down to the present day, a proof example might be more appreciated than an uncirculated one.
There would be another change for some of the mintage of 1873 as this time a small amount of silver was added to the weight of the dime. This time, the full productive capacities of the Comstock Lode was flooding world markets and depressing silver’s price.
In 1873 silver was also being depressed by the huge indemnity France was paying Germany in the aftermath of its defeat in the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian war. The funds allowed Germany to adopt the gold standard and demote its traditional silver coin issues.
As far as the 1873 dime design is concerned, what worked when silver was removed in 1853 apparently was expected to work as well when silver was added, so arrows were placed at the date for the 1873 dimes with the greater silver content and the 1874 dimes as well. The Philadelphia mintages were over 2 million, so the type is available at $13.50 in G-4 and $500 in MS-60 with an MS-65 at $4,500. A Proof-65 is the same price as the MS-65.
The dimes that followed, starting with the 1875 would be the final type of the Seated Liberty dime, although they are basically identical to those starting with the 1860. Once again you decide if you want to include one or not, but they are certainly affordable with a G-4 starting at $12.50 while an MS-60 of a number of dates is around $125 with an MS-65 at $1,100 and the Proof-65 at $1,200.
The Barber dime was introduced in 1892 to a less than enthusiastic acclaim from both the public and collectors. The Barber dime was never heavily saved, so despite the fact that it was produced at a variety of mints from 1892 until 1916 it is not as available as some might expect in top grades. It is easy to acquire an example in lower circulated grades at silver related prices, but an MS-60, which is just $105 is a good value and so is an MS-65 which currently starts at $695.
Like the Barber dime, the Mercury dime that followed really had only one type and three decades of mintages at various facilities. Moreover, some of the mintages were very high and that makes the Mercury dime an available type today with an MS-60 at $6.50 while an MS-65 would be just under $25. If you really want the best an MS-65 with full split bands currently can be found for under $50 in the case of the most available dates.
There are two types of the final dime in U.S. history. The Roosevelt dime appeared in 1946 shortly after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt basically as a circulating commemorative. Until 1965 they were made from 90 percent silver but since 1965 all except special silver proofs struck 1992 to date have contained no silver. The most available dates of the 90 percent silver type are just $6 in MS-65, while those starting in 1965 with no silver can be found for under a dollar, making it possible to spend a little more and acquire a truly ultra grade.
For the collector, the dimes of the United States are an interesting collection and one that can really be completed by most who attempt a type collection as there are really no great rarities. The early dates are expensive, to be sure, but the knowledge that they tend to rise steadily in price over time make a pleasant exception to the sleepiness of the later issue.
Certainly the early dimes are tough but their prices are reasonable and in assembling a set you get not only good values, but a real chance to study the nation’s history through one of the denominations that had the heaviest use in regular commerce for over two centuries.