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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
“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
“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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.