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The Mercury Dime

A pattern dime of 1916 which was accidentally circulated. (Images courtesy of Stack's/Bowers)

A pattern dime of 1916 which was accidentally circulated. (Images courtesy of Stack's/Bowers)

The Mercury dime is what started this writer collecting coins. In the fall of 1950 I lived in Longmont, Colo. and a local grocery store advertised that it would sell a pound of margarine for a dime if that coin was dated 1940. It did not take long to discover why the store was so ‘generous:’ this particular dime was very hard to find in that part of the country. There is more to the history of the Mercury dime than just being used an as advertisement for merchandise, however.

In the first place, although called the ‘Mercury’ dime, it is also sometimes referred to as the Winged Liberty Head dime as the head is of a woman, not a man. (Mercury was a male god of the Roman world whose role was primarily of commerce and commercial affairs.) However, to the general public and numismatists as well, this coin is called the Mercury dime and probably will be as long as there are collectors of United States coins.

In 1892 the Barber dime was introduced and, although not great art, served the nation well for 24 years. During the Administration of President Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921) it came to the attention of Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo that the 25–year limit on changing coin designs was about to fall due on the minor silver coinage. The Treasury Secretary, who had presidential ambitions, saw in the coinage redesign an excellent opportunity to score points with the public for both himself and the President.

McAdoo had a close relationship with the White House for the simple reason that Woodrow Wilson was his father-in-law. Because of this fact, McAdoo no doubt was able to persuade the President to undertake the coinage redesign without a great deal of trouble. Under ordinary circumstances, of course, the Secretary would have had to go through protocol to see the Chief Executive.

The two men decided that they would not only strive for high-quality artwork on the coinage but send a message to the world about America and her readiness to fight if necessary. In August 1914 World War I had broken out in Europe and when McAdoo presented the coinage idea to the President in the latter part of 1915 there was a very real chance that we would become involved in that war.

During 1915 the German U-Boat warfare, which affected neutral shipping, was in high gear and there were constant calls from the public to put an end to this outrage. Fearing war with the United States, the German High Command reluctantly gave in but in 1917 the resumption of these attacks on the high seas led directly to the American declaration of war against Imperial Germany.

Wilson himself was of two minds. He had sworn to stay out of the conflict yet his narrow victory in the 1912 election, due to a split in the Republican party, had ominous overtones. Republicans were openly calling for intervention and the 1916 election might well depend on how well Wilson handled this explosive problem. Given the above circumstances, the coinage redesign presented Wilson with an ideal way to state his political views without actually committing himself.

Secretary McAdoo, using his legal authority to choose designs, invited a select group of artists to submit sketches for the dime, quarter, and half dollar. The exact instructions to this group of men has yet to be published, but almost certainly they were given detailed directions on what was wanted. From the Secretary’s viewpoint, there was little rationale for such a contest if the artists had a free hand.

By early in 1916 matters had progressed to the point that Adolph A. Weinman had been notified that his drawings for the dime had been accepted. He now began the complicated task of executing the plaster models from which pattern pieces would be struck for examination. Several patterns, all dated 1916, are in fact known, but they differ only slightly in key details. On some pieces his monogram (AW) is missing.

The rare 1916-D dime.

The rare 1916-D dime.

By the fall of 1916 problems with the dime design had been solved and coinage began at all three mints, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Denver. The first pieces were released to circulation in October and met with a very good response from the public. Wilson and McAdoo had indeed accomplished what they had set out to do.

The government was justifiably proud of the three new designs for the minor silver coinage and in the Mint Report for 1916 we find the following description for the dime: the obverse “shows a head of Liberty with winged cap. The head is firm and simple in form, the profile forceful.” For the reverse, the report notes that it “shows a design of the bundle of rods, with battle-ax, known as [a] Fasces, and symbolical of unity, wherein lies the Nation's strength. Surrounding the fasces is a full-fledged branch of olive, symbolical of peace.”

Because of low demand, the coinage of new dimes at Denver was very light, with only 264,000 pieces struck. As 1916 was the first year of this design, luckily the public saved a reasonable number of them or otherwise they would be prohibitively rare today. Even then, however, the monthly price guide in Coins Magazine reports that in F–12 a specimen is worth $3150. In XF–40, normally the lowest condition most numismatists would like to have for a collection, the tab is a very strong $5300. For this particular coin, of course, most will settle for a much lower grade than XF.

The other 1916 Mercury dimes are more reasonable in value. The 1916–S in MS–60, for example, is worth only $50, far from the amount shown for the Denver issue in this same grade. The similar 1916 Philadelphia, a relatively common coin even today, is a very reasonable $40.

Although the 1916–D dime has always been a difficult piece to obtain, in the early 1950s these could still be found in circulation on rare occasion. The writer of this article pulled one from change in mid–1951, but it was well worn, having passed through many hands in the preceding 35 years.

Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous individuals with time on their hands and little else to do except create fake 1916–Ds. There are not that many out there, but still it is a good idea to have this coin authenticated by one of the principal grading services. In most cases a genuine Philadelphia issue is used, so the key point to examine is the mintmark. (In years past some dishonest people glued the fake mintmark to the reverse of the coin and, when the proper solvent was applied, the mintmark floated away.)

Dime coinage in 1917 was extremely heavy due to the war, which broke out in April between the United States and Germany. The preparations to send an expeditionary force to the Western Front meant huge orders for war materials and an increased work force. More people working required additional small change for ordinary commercial purposes and the dime was a key coin in those transactions, just as the quarter dollar is today.

For the above reasons the 1917 coinage is quite common and easily obtained by the collector at relatively low prices. Although not a first year of coinage, still the Philadelphia mintage is worth only $25 in MS–60 and $170 in MS–65. The 1917–S in MS–60 is valued at $85 while Denver, with a mintage of more than 9 million, is affordable at $77. The 1918 coinage was also quite heavy and easily obtained by the modern collector at reasonable prices.

With war’s end in 1918, the economy began to slow down, but in 1919 was yet strong enough for a heavy mintage of dimes at all three mints. Oddly enough this trend continued well into 1920 but towards the end of that year dime coinage had virtually come to a standstill.

1921 has long been known as a scarce date in the Mercury dime series.

1921 has long been known as a scarce date in the Mercury dime series.

In 1921 the economy finally caught up with marketplace requirements for minor silver coinage and only two mints, Philadelphia and Denver, struck any of this denomination. The total at the two mints was only about 2.3 million and the current values well reflect this low rate of demand by the public. In XF–40 the Philadelphia coinage is worth $485 while its scarcer Denver sister is tabbed at a respectable $675. As with the 1916–D, the 1921 coins could still be found in circulation, though in well-worn condition, during the early 1950s.

The lack of demand was not the only reason for low dime coinage in 1921 and none at all in 1922. Congress had mandated the coinage of silver dollars, to replace those melted during World War I for Britain. Striking of dollars was very heavy during these two years and it was only the low mintages of minor silver that enabled the mints to produce all those dollars.

Dime coinage resumed at a reasonable level in 1923, again with only two mints but San Francisco replaced Denver in this instance. Philadelphia had just over 50 million pieces while San Francisco came through with a respectable 6.4 million. Those from the parent mint are easily obtained for a reasonable sum.

Occasionally one sees notice of a 1923–D dime but these are contemporary counterfeits. The Soviets are sometimes blamed for this spurious coinage, but it is not clear why anyone would have done it except to make money from the difference between bullion and face value.

Beginning in 1924 the coinage of dimes became much stronger and it is only the occasional issue, such as the 1926–S, which is slightly difficult to obtain. That particular coinage had only 1.5 million coins in all, which accounts for the XF–40 value of $245.

For those who want only the best in their collection, the bands around the fasces on the reverse are the key point. Dealer advertisements indicate that such-and-such a coin has ‘FSB,’ meaning Full Split Bands. In this condition even common coins bring fair sums of money in comparison to those pieces without Full Split Bands.

With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929–1930, the coinage of dimes showed a marked decline as spending declined dramatically. In 1931 this denomination was struck at all three mints, but only in limited numbers. There was no coinage of the dime in 1932 or 1933 due to lack of public demand.

Oddly enough, the 1.8 million dimes struck at San Francisco in 1931 would have been higher except for a curious directive from the Bureau of the Mint in November of that year. Having discovered that only 194,000 nickels had been struck to date, the Bureau ordered that dime coinage cease and this mint concentrate on the nickel instead. The Bureau directive pointed out that collectors needed a reasonable coinage in order to find the necessary pieces.

This 1938 Mercury dime illustrates the last year of peace before the start of World War II in 1939. 

This 1938 Mercury dime illustrates the last year of peace before the start of World War II in 1939. 

By 1934 the economy had recovered sufficiently so that dime coinage was again strong, but San Francisco did not resume mintage until 1935. From this period the value of most MS–65s with full split bands show a strong drop: for example, the 1936 Philadelphia issue in this grade is valued at only about $84. Some of the later FSB issues, such as the 1939–S, are worth considerably more, however.

For the years of 1934 through 1945 virtually any dime is readily obtainable in high grade with the exception of the two overdates (1942/1 at both Philadelphia and Denver). In MS–60 each brings several thousand dollars each when they can be found. These coins were the result of sloppy engraving department work at the Philadelphia Mint towards the end of 1941; some dies being readied for coinage in 1941 were accidentally mixed in with those being made for the coming year.

The 1942/1

The 1942/1

The 1942/1 overdate Philadelphia coinage was discovered at an early date by sharp-eyed collectors, but the Denver issue was controversial until a sufficient number of high-grade specimens were found. Oddly enough, the Denver issues are now worth less than Philadelphia in MS–60, apparently indicating that quite a few turned up in the 1960s or 1970s.

In the 1950s one of the ‘key’ varieties for the Mercury dime was the 1945–S with ‘micro’ S. The current catalogue value is about $38 in MS–60, but at one time there was a much stronger demand for such coins and this was reflected in the cost to the collector. With less interest the price has dropped significantly.

Proof coinage, in abeyance since late 1915 for the silver coinage, resumed in 1936. Until 1942 the Philadelphia Mint regularly struck proof Mercury dimes for collectors. These are in fairly strong demand and the collector can expect a hefty premium if the pieces are in superior condition.

The last Mercury dimes were coined in 1945; at the beginning of 1946 they were replaced by the Roosevelt dime, which is still with us. After 1945, only the dedicated collector was left to appreciate a coin that had served the nation well.