This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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Recently, the design has been changed for every circulating coin except for the denomination whose design most needs change!
In 2009, the cent featured four special one-year reverses commemorating the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, and another new reverse has been implemented for this year. From 2004 to 2005 the five cent coin featured differing obverse portraits of Thomas Jefferson and varied reverses commemorating the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and, beginning in 2006, an improved portrait and reverse.
The quarter saw a re-worked obverse coupled with not fewer than fifty-six different reverses, one for each state, territory and the federal district, from 1999 to 2009, and another series of new reverses displaying federal parks began this year. The gold dollar coin began a series of presidential portraits in 2007, while production of the Sacagawea obverse continued, with a new reverse each year. Even the half dollar, with only a few million minted each year for sale to collectors, saw significant improvements to the portrait of John F. Kennedy, with improved hair detail and more elegant lettering, compared to how the coin looked in the 1970s and 1980s.
Only the dime has seen absolutely no change in recent years. And this is all the more disappointing, because except for Washington’s ludicrously over-styled hair shown on the quarter on the since 1999, the design on the dime, without exception, is the poorest of any on our circulating coins.
Since its hurried inception in 1946 following the sudden death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the dime’s design has left much to be desired. Anyone who has seen an actual photograph of Roosevelt will struggle to reconcile it to the image on the dime. Where is the famous, confident, jutting jaw or infectious look of optimism that were Roosevelt’s hallmarks? And the lettering on the dime varies from thick and inelegant on the reverse to so thin and narrow on the obverse it is hard to read.
Perhaps due to its small size, the coin has been totally ignored in the recent spate of redesign, but that omission should now be redressed.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt had such a substantial impact on American and world history that retaining his image on the dime is without argument. But surely the portrait of him and the lettering can be substantially improved. The imaginative and artistic depictions of Thomas Jefferson appearing on the nickel in recent years are proof that the design can be improved even if the same individual continues to be portrayed.
Hardly anyone today even understands what is depicted on the dime’s reverse or its archaic symbolism. It would be nice to allow artists freedom to craft a new reverse to combine with Roosevelt’s portrait, and perhaps in some way tie-in recognition of his surmounting his paralysis disability. Anyone who visits the FDR memorial in Washington, DC cannot but be inspired by the soaring sculptures and the waterfalls, but it is the small, life-sized statue of Roosevelt sitting in his wheelchair that makes the largest impact.
But while Roosevelt’s portrait can and should be retained on the dime, the multiple simultaneous designs on the dollar and quarter coins demonstrate that denominations need not be beholden to a single design. Why not continue the FDR dime but also provide for circulating commemorative dimes as has been done with the cent, nickel, quarter and dollar coins?
And instead of deceased presidents or images or symbols of the states and territories, we should commemorate an area too often overlooked in America—the arts. In addition to Roosevelt, for five or ten years, the dime could feature great American writers, artists and architects, people like Frank Lloyd Wright, Edgar Alan Poe, Charles W. Chesnutt, and Grandma Moses.
In one of his finest addresses, President John F. Kennedy extolled the importance of the artist speaking at Amherst College in 1962:
“The artist…becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state…I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist…We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”
In depicting great American artists, authors and architects on our minted coinage, which is itself a form of art, we could put on commemorating, educating display for our citizens and the people of the world, the great men and women who have crafted American writing, art, and architecture, much as President Kennedy hoped when he spoke on that fall day in 1962:
“I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.”
The other denominations have proved that circulating commemorative coins work, and that existing portraits can be improved. It is now time to turn our attention to the dime, creating an improved portrait of one of America’s greatest leaders, and establishing a program to acknowledge the great contributions American artists have contributed to culture and society.
David Allen Hines of Alexandria, Va., is a municipal government manager who collects modern American coinage. His articles have appeared frequently in numismatic publications. To have your opinion considered for Viewpoint, write to David C. Harper, Editor, Numismatic News, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.