The Mint Act of 1890 allowed the design of a coin to be changed every 25 years. Thus, in 1916, there was interest in replacing Charles E. Barber’s designs for the dime, quarter, and half dollar. Mint Director Robert W. Woolley invited three renown sculptors outside the Mint to produce designs for the three denominations. Though perhaps intending that each coin would display the efforts of a different artist, Adolph A. Weinman, a former student of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, completed two of the three designs–one for the dime and another for the half dollar. Hermon A. MacNeil’s design was chosen for the quarter. The new designs were representative of the artistic vigor of the early 20th century that was displayed on U.S. coins, a group that, along with Weinman’s dime, included the Lincoln cent; the Indian Head (buffalo) nickel; Weinman’s Liberty Walking half dollar; the incuse Indian Head $2.50 quarter eagle and $5 half eagle gold coins, Saint-Gaudens’ Indian Head $10 eagle and eponymous double eagle, and several commemorative issues such as the Panama-Pacific Exposition silver and gold pieces.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
Modeled after Elsie Stevens, wife of poet Wallace Stevens and a tenant of a New York City apartment house owned by the sculptor, Weinman’s Liberty on the dime wears a Phrygian cap, a soft, somewhat conical device that became known as a symbol of freedom. The cap is depicted supported by a pole on late 18th century U.S. Liberty Cap copper half cents and cents, and on the 19th century Liberty Seated silver coins. The cap also displays a small wing on the facing side. Together, the image represents freedom from bondage, specifically freedom of thought. However, the fact that this dime is almost universally known as the Mercury dime is an indication of the potential pitfalls of too clever symbolism. The Roman god Mercury (from the Greek god Hermes) was a god of trade and commerce, the messenger of the gods who traveled swiftly between tasks via the wings on his hat and shoes. Though Mercury’s hat was a hard, brimmed piece worn by a male god, those details were overwhelmed by the symbolic wing.
The symbolism of the reverse fasces was also dramatic, but one that for a time had an unintended association. Representing power and authority, the fasces dates possibly to Etruscan times and was later adopted as a symbol by the Roman Republic. The bundle of rods is said to represent strength through unity (many rods much stronger than a single rod), with the axe denoting authority, particularly the power over life and death. Unfortunately, it was also a symbol used by Italian fascism in the 1930s and 1940s. The stigma was apparently short lived (unlike that of the swastika of Nazi Germany), and the fasces appears today on several symbols of U.S. government, including the seal of the U.S. Senate and on the frieze of the facade of the U.S. Supreme Court building. Weinman’s depiction, with the fasces wrapped in an olive branch, presented a “desire for peace but ready for war” message on the eve of America’s entry into WWI. Regardless of possible mixed messages, the design produced by Adolph Weinman is considered one of the best modern U.S. coin designs–particularly on such a small palette–and the dime remains a collector favorite.
On the obverse, Liberty faces left, most of her hair covered by a soft cap with a soft peak folded toward the front. The cap has a small wing extending from the base upward to the back. The word LIBERTY, E and R partially covered by the top of the cap, encircles around slightly more than the top half of the coin just inside the flat rim. IN GOD WE TRUST, on two lines of two words each, and with centered dots separating the words on each line, is to the lower left. The date is at the lower right, mostly below the truncation of the neck. The designer’s initials AW appear as a monogram to the lower right, about halfway between the Y of LIBERTY and the date.
A fasces, its axe pointed to the left, occupies the center of the reverse. The bundle of rods is bound by horizontal banding at the top (three bands), in the middle (two bands), and at the bottom (two bands), with a single band diagonally across the bundle in the each open area between the horizontal bands. An olive branch with berries curves from the left front behind the bundle of rods to appear again at the top right. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, the words separated by centered dots, is concentric to the flat rim around slightly more than the top half of the coin; ONE DIME, the words separated by the bottom of the fasces and the olive branch, completes the circle at the bottom. A five-point star separates ONE and UNITED on the left, and DIME and AMERICA on the right. Winged Liberty dimes were minted at Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco; D and S mintmarks are located to the left of the end of the olive branch, oriented in alignment with the curve of ONE and DIME.
Tens of thousands of business strike ‘Mercury’ dimes have been certified, including a few prooflike pieces, and more for the dates from the late 1930s forward and for 1916 examples. Many certified coins have the FB (Full Bands or Full Split Bands) designation, which refers to complete visible lines separating the individual horizontal bands of the fasces. Prices are modest for many dates through MS66, particularly from the early 1930s forward, though some are expensive as MS65 and finer for dates prior to the 1930s. More expensive pieces include 1916-D, very expensive finer than XF40; 1921 and 1921-D, expensive finer than MS63; 1926-S, expensive finer than MS63; 1942, 2 Over 1, expensive finer than XF40; and many of the FB examples, which for some issues are very expensive to extremely expensive finer than MS63, particularly for dimes minted prior to the early 1930s. Brilliant proof Winged Liberty dimes were minted from 1936 through 1942; a few scholars identify matte or satin proof examples for 1916, while others do not. Prices for proofs are modest for most years through PR66 and PR67, but expensive finer. Proofs issues in 1936 are expensive finer than PR65; those from 1937 and 1938 are expensive finer than PR66. Cameo examples are expensive as PR65 and finer.
Designer: Adolph A. Weinman
Circulation Mintage: high 231,410,000 (1944), low 264,000 (1916-D; no circulation dimes were minted in 1922, 1932, and 1933)
Proof Mintage: high 22,329 (1942), low 4,130 (1936)
Denomination: Ten cents (10/100)
Diameter: 17.9 mm, reeded edge
Metal Content: 90% silver, 10% copper
Weight: 2.5 grams
Varieties: Several known including 1942 and 1942-D, 2 Over 1; 1945-S, Micro S; and other minor die variations.
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
The Complete Guide to Mercury Dimes. David W. Lange. DLRC Press; online at www.stellacoinnews.com
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.