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Five historic dimes
By Tom LaMarre
It’s been more than 200 years since the U.S. Mint struck a small run of “dismes” that launched the denomination. Full-scale production, if you can call it that, began in 1796. Since then the dime has covered a lot of territory, culminating in Roosevelt dimes with annual mintages reaching into the billions.

With so much material available, choosing a handful of the most historic dimes isn’t easy. The following selections have nothing to do with rarity or value but are based more on what each coin has contributed to the denomination’s ongoing success. If a few of them are surprisingly affordable, so much the better.

1792 Dime

This is the one that started it all, even if collectors can’t agree whether it was a pattern or a regular issue. The Act of April 2, 1792 authorized the construction of a U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. It also provided for a range of copper, silver and gold coins, including silver “dismes”—the original spelling—each “to be of the value of one-tenth of a dollar or unit, and to contain 37 grains and two-sixteenths parts of a grain of pure, or 41 grains and three-fifths parts of a grain of standard silver.” It would have one-tenth the silver weight and value of a dollar.

Thomas Jefferson may have suggested the original spelling. Possibly it was to be pronounced “deem.” Then again, the “s” might have been silent.
Lawmakers required the disme to have on its obverse “an impression emblematic of liberty, with an inscription of the word ‘Liberty’ and the year of coinage.” The reverse had to have “the figure or representation of an eagle, with the inscription ‘United States of America.”

It was a simple formula—a coin that was perfect for a decimal system of coinage and had a simple design everyone could recognize. But there was a big catch. The Mint had not yet been built, and officials had not come up with someone to hire as an engraver.

Work on the disme went ahead anyway. The dies may have been engraved by Robert Birch and Adam Eckfeldt, according to A Guide Book of United States Coins, which also says the coins were probably struck in July 1792 or a little later, around the same time as the first half dismes. Eckfeldt may

The dismes were struck in the cellar of a Philadelphia home owned by John Harper, a saw maker who happened to have a screw press. It’s likely that George Washington, Jefferson and other dignitaries witnessed the first strikes.

Apparently the first dismes never circulated. They are usually classified as patterns.

Today only a few silver 1792 dismes and slightly more than a dozen struck in copper are known. In 1998 a copper 1792 disme formerly in the John W. Garrett collection was graded by the Professional Grading Service Specimen-65. The last time it was offered for sale it was priced at $1.2 million.

1796 Dime

When the Mint opened in 1793, it concentrated on striking cents and half cents. The dime did not go into regular production until 1796.

Legend has it that famed portrait artist Gilbert Stuart sketched the Draped Bust Liberty obverse, using Philadelphia socialite Anne Willing as his model. But there is no real proof of the story. Stuart’s supposed connection with the design was publicized in an article in the American Journal of Numismatics in 1887.

Robert Scot engraved the obverse and possibly the small-eagle reverse. Sometimes the reverse is credited to engraver John Eckstein.

Measuring 19mm in diameter, the first dimes were larger than today’s dime, but thinner. The Philadelphia Mint reportedly turned out only 22,135 examples in 1796, so most people never even had the chance to see one. Foreign coins were most widely used in the United States until the mid -800s.

Despite the limited production run, the Mint used six pair of dies to strike 1796 dimes. It was an indication of the problems that plagued the early Mint and led many critics to call for its elimination. Some politicians wanted a private contractor to strike the nation’s coins.

Coin Prices lists the 1796 Draped Bust dime at $1,300 in Good-4, which makes me wish I had not passed on an About Good piece priced at only $125 years ago. Long after they went out of production, early dimes were sometimes used to make women’s bracelets. This explains why Draped Bust dimes are sometimes found holed. Damaged coins are usually regarded as space fillers, but a 1796 dime is desirable in any state of preservation.

At the other end of the grading scale, an MS-60 1796 dime is valued at $12,000. Considering the coin’s low mintage and the fact it is over 200 years old, I would have expected the price to be much higher. The estate of Col. E.H.R. Green, who died in the 1930s, included a hoard of uncirculated 1796 dimes.

Draped Bust dimes remained in production until 1807, but they were not struck every year. The fledgling eagle reverse gave way to a heraldic eagle design in 1798, based on the Great Seal of the United States.

Oddly, there was no indication of face value on the first dimes. The inscription “10C.” was not added to the reverse until 1809, and not until 1837 did “One Dime” appear on the coin.

1838-O Dime

The Philadelphia Mint had a hard time keeping up with the demand for coins. The first branch mint, in New Orleans, was authorized in 1835. It was needed because of “the great importation of gold and silver into New Orleans and the great risk and expense incurred by sending on all the bullion form the South to be coined at Philadelphia,” said Sen. George A. Waggaman.

J.L. Riddell, the Mint’s coiner, described operations at New Orleans: “The planchets, with wax or tallow still adherent, are…heated to a dull redness in iron recipients placed in the annealing furnace, and poured, hot as they are, into a tub of diluted sulphuric acid, by which means all impurities are removed from their surfaces, the alloyed copper superficially dissolved away, and the clear, beautiful, dead white appearance of pure unburnished silver is elicited.

“Adhering acid is washed away in water, and adhering water dried away by hot mahogany sawdust, in an ingenious rotating apparatus heated by steam, invented by the present coiner.

“The dies are prepared for this Mint in Philadelphia. The letter ‘O’ placed usually under the eagle, is intended to designate the coinage at New Orleans.…

“There are four presses in the coining room, forming a series in respect to size and strength, adapted to the stamping of the various coins, from the half dime to the dollar… Each operating press requires a man to watch it, to oil the joints occasionally, and to keep a vertical brass tube supplied with the blanks or planchets to be coined. The untiring press goes on, seizing with iron fingers from the tube a planchet of its own accord, carefully adjusting it to the retracted dies, squeezing it with a degree of force sublime to contemplate, and then quietly and safely depositing it in the box placed to receive it.

“From 80 to 150 pieces, dependent on the size, are thus coined in one minute’s time. The obverse, reverse, and indented work upon the edge are all completed at a single effort of the press.”

The New Orleans Mint struck its first dimes, distinguished by an “O” mintmark on the reverse, in 1838. Some 20 1838-O dimes may have been placed in the cornerstone of the New American Theatre in New Orleans.

New Orleans was suffering through hard times when the coins were struck. In August 1838 the mayor told the municipal council the city owed banks more than $1.2 million and was unable to make the payments. City land was mortgaged to the banks to meet routine expenses, and an agent was sent to New York to raise money.

The Seated Liberty design by Christian Gobrecht first appeared on the dime the previous year. Originally there was no border of 13 stars on the obverse. The stars were added in 1838, but not on dimes struck at the New Orleans Mint, which waited another year to revise the design.

The New Orleans Mint struck slightly more than 400,000 dimes in 1838. A Very Good-8 survivor is valued at $60, according to Coin Prices. There is also an 1839-O dime variety with the reverse of 1838-O. It was struck from rusty dies and has a bumpy surface on the reverse. A VG-8 example is valued at $225.

The real significance of the 1838-O dime is that it helped make the dime a national coin, not one whose use was limited just to the East. Before the New Orleans Mint opened, dimes were rarely seen in New Orleans or anywhere west. The situation began to change with the introduction of New Orleans dimes and really picked up steam when the San Francisco Mint went into operation in the 1850s and began churning out Seated Liberty dimes.

The Carson City Mint opened in the 1870s and, on a smaller scale than San Francisco, did its part to insure the dime’s success in the West. If the New Orleans Mint had fizzled, however, and the 1838-O dime had never been struck, the story might have had a different ending.

1916 Dime

The dime reached an artistic high point with the Mercury dime, released in late October 1916. Never before or since has there been so much publicity surrounding the debut of a new dime design.

It started when the Treasury Department announced a competition for new silver coin designs in December 1915. Newspapers predicted great things for the forthcoming dime, quarter and half dollar. Stories told of what was involved in preparing a new design, the requirements it had to meet and the amount of time and work that was involved.

More newspaper coverage followed when the winners were unveiled, including sculptor Adolph Weinman’s Mercury dime. People could hardly wait to get the coins in their hands.

The Washington Post jumped the gun and reported the first examples were released July 1, 1916, as planned. But this was not the case at all. Soon came reports of problem after problem the Mint was having preparing the designs for full-scale production. By the time the Mercury dime went into circulation, it was nearly four months late. The new quarter and half dollar took even longer to arrive.

However, they were well worth the wait, especially the dime. Critics described it as “quite an improvement over the old issue,” “a silvern beauty,” “far more beautiful than any since the Draped Bust issue.”

If the dime’s symbolism went unrecognized by the public, no one seemed to care very much. Weinman himself wrote a letter to The Numismatist explaining that the Mercury dime symbolized freedom of thought. To most people, however, the image represented not Liberty but Mercury, the speedy messenger of the gods in mythology. Weinman’s dime will forever be known as the Mercury dime, whether the label is accurate or not.

The symbolism on the dime’s reverse also broke new ground. There was no eagle, no wreath. Instead a bundle of rods around an ax dominated the reverse. The fasces supposedly symbolized unity and authority. At least that was the case in ancient times.

But when Woodrow Wilson was in the White House and the United States had not yet gone to war, no one seemed to know what to make of the dime’s reverse. Some people thought it pictured a golf bag and clubs, so they called it the “golf dime” for a while.

Because production of Mercury dimes began so late in the year, people might have expected the 1916-dated dimes to be rarities. Texas dealer B. Max Mehl, and Treasury officials, sent out word this would not be the case, and that there would be more than enough new dimes to go around.

The information, however, was not entirely accurate. At the Denver Mint, only 264,000 1916-dated Mercury dimes were struck. There were few coin collectors in the West, so the new dimes slipped into circulation and not many uncirculated examples were set aside. In MS-65, the 1916-D dime is now valued at $25,000, according to Coin Prices.

But the 1916-D was an exception. Coin Prices lists a Mint State-65 1916 at $90 and an Extremely Fine-40 example at only $10.

Dime mintages were usually high during the Mercury dime’s long run, except for an occasional lapse during a recession or depression. A dime could still buy many different items, including candy bars, cigars, soda pop and almost anything in a five-and-dime store.

In addition, dimes were probably the most popular coin for charitable donations. The March of Dimes helped push dime mintages to record levels in the 1930s and 1940s. But dimes were sent to all sorts of other causes and organizations, too, ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to the Townsend Plan, an old-age pension plan proposed in 1934 by Dr. Francis E. Townsend.

Through it all, the Mercury dime was the least troublesome of the silver coins introduced in 1916. The design held up well after decades in circulation, which is more than can be said for the Standing Liberty quarter, often seen with the date worn off. Mercury dimes were also easier to strike than the other denominations. On Walking Liberty half dollars, for example, so much of the detail was sometimes missing that it is difficult to tell a mint state example from one grading EF or About Uncirculated.
Although the Mercury dime was as beautiful as it was practical, in a way it became a casualty of World War II. When Italian dictator Benito Mussolini adopted the fasces as a symbol of fascism, it was too much to bear for many Americans. The design was no longer considered appropriate for the dime.

For a while it looked as if Benjamin Franklin would replace “Mercury”—the Winged Liberty Head—on the dime. But when Franklin Roosevelt died in April 1945, public sentiment, and Roosevelt’s association with the March of Dimes, made him the logical choice to be honored on the coin. The Roosevelt dime made its debut in 1946, but the durable Mercury dimes lingered in circulation until the 1960s.

1965 Dime

By the mid-1960s the rising price of silver—and the dwindling national stockpile—forced the Mint to consider alternative metals for the dime, quarter and half dollar. Many different materials were considered and tested in an effort to find something that would be compatible with the current coins and work in vending machines without requiring expensive modifications.

Private companies were an important part of the process. The Medallic Art Co. and the Franklin Mint struck experimental dimes in a nickel alloy, using designs engraved by Gilroy Roberts. The obverse depicted International Nickel Co. executive Paul D. Merica. The reverse pictured INCO’s Merica Laboratory.

For the dime and quarter, government officials and lawmakers eventually decided on a composition consisting of outer layers of copper-nickel bonded to a pure copper core. The half dollar would also have a clad composition but would retain some silver content for a few more years.

It was a monumental change to the coinage system, probably the most significant since the 1790s. Getting it right took time. The first clad coins were not released until late in 1965.

“It will be some time before John Q. Public receives a specimen of America’s new coins,” the September 1965 issue of Coins said. “Treasury Department will not release the coins for another year or more. The coins will be stockpiled until billions have been struck and nationwide release can be effected overnight.

“Officially the government reasoning is that collectors will take all the new coins out of circulation as soon as they are released, but unofficially, Gresham’s law, the theory that bad money drives out good, has had a great deal of influence on the government’s decision to stockpile the coins first.”

Production of clad coins began in late August 1965, but the Mint did not start making clad dimes until December. The quarter was the first of the clad coins to be released. The December 1965 issue described the appearance of the clad quarter, but the same comments would apply to the dime. “Beyond the new date, you’ll find the…faintly bluish cast of a bright, new nickel.… And of course there will always be that additional distinguishing mark—the copper-brown ring around the coin’s edge. The ham in the sandwich.”

In a Rose Garden signing ceremony for the Coinage Act of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson claimed silver coins would remain in circulation alongside the new clad coins. To discourage hoarding of silver coins, he warned that the government would use its stockpile of silver to keep the market price in line with the face value of the coins.

Date-freeze legislation also was part of the strategy. The Mint continued to strike 1964-dated silver coins as late as 1966, which explains the enormous mintages recorded for 1964, including a combined total of more than 2 billion dimes from the Philadelphia and Denver mints.

The date-freeze policy was still in effect in 1965 and beyond. More than 1.6 billion 1965-dated dimes were struck. Today an MS-65 1965 dime is valued at a dollar.

The last silver dimes were struck in February 1966 and dated 1964. The first clad dimes were released in March 1966.

Clad coins went over surprisingly well, even if they did drive silver coins out of circulation after a few years. Still, there were a few problems. Many people complained about the flat appearance of clad dimes compared to the higher relief of the silver version. It was said the copper caused the flatness in the coins. Eventually, everyone seemed to get used to it.

The Roosevelt dime is now the longest-running U.S. coin design with its original obverse and reverse. The Lincoln cent obverse goes back to 1909, but the reverse dates to 1959. Introduced in 1938, the Jefferson nickel recently received a new obverse portrait. The Monticello reverse has also been modified.

The Washington quarter, too, no longer resembles the original from 1932. Other denominations do not even come close to the dime design’s longevity. More clad Roosevelt dimes have been minted than all previous dimes combined.

An enduring design. A durable composition. And a few milestone dimes along the way that made it a vital part of the monetary system. It helps explain why the dime is still going strong more than two centuries after the first dimes were struck in the basement of a Philadelphia home—and why it’s likely to remain in production for many more decades to come.

Coins News

Five Historic Dimes - 1792 Dime - 1796 Dime - 1838-O Dime - 1916 Dime - 1965 Dime

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