The history of the Winged Head Liberty Dime, commonly referred to as the Mercury Dime, is one that nearly did not happen. A misunderstanding of a law brought it into being when the Mint thought it had to change the circulating coinage in the United States. It didn’t but like many collectors, I’m thankful the misreading of the law happened. If it hadn’t, we would not have one of the most beloved coins in the history of coinage in the United States.
The Mercury Dime was minted from 1916 to 1945, replacing the Liberty Head, commonly referred to as the Barber Dime, which had been in circulation since 1892. It measured 17.91 mm in diameter, the same as the current Roosevelt Dime, and weighed 2.5 grams and had a 118 reed edge. Its composition was 90% silver and 10% copper, the standard for the time, with its Mint Mark located on the Reverse of the coin just above the letter E in ONE. Both the Obverse and Reverse were designed by Adolph Weinman.
Mercury Dime Legislation
The inception of the Mercury Dime begins some 26 years prior to the coin actually being released. That was when the United States Congress passed an act that gave the Director of the Mint wide ranging authority to change coin designed after it had been in circulation for at least 25 years. You can read the relevant section of the Act at this link but below is the key statement in the Act:
The Director of the Mint shall have power, with the ap- euthorized emblems, proval of the Secretary of the Treasury, to cause new designs or models of authorized emblems or devices to be prepared and adopted in the same manner as when new coins or devices are authorized. Limitation on But no change in the design or die of any coin shall be made oftener geindesign etc. than once in twenty-five years from and including the year of the first adoption of the design, model, die, or hub for the same coin: -rovsos. Provided, That no change be made in the diameter of any coin: coin diameter. And provided further. That nothing in this section shall prevent Standard silver dollar the adoption of new designs or models for devices or emblems already Five-cent nickel authorized for the standard silver dollar and the five-cent nickel piece, piece as soon as practicable after the passage of this act. But the Director of the Mint shall nevertheless have power, with the ap-proval of the Secretary of the Treasury, to engage temporarily for this purpose the services of one or more artists, distinguished in their respective departments of art, who shall be paid for such serv- ice from the contingent appropriation for the mint at Philadelphia.”
Approved, September 26,1890.51st Congress of the United States of America
Reading the Act, it is clear: The Director of the Mint can change the design of coinage, without the approval of Congress, if that coin has been in circulation for 25 years. But it doesn’t require the coins to be change. That distinction is what we can thank for the birth of the Winged Liberty Head dime. Mint official read the Act in 1915 as a requirement that they had to change the designs given that the Barber Dime had been in circulation since 1892. The same was true for the Barber Quarter and Half Dollar.
Under this misguided interpretation of the Act, the Mint set forth with the process of determining the next design for the ten-cent piece along with the Half Dollar.
Design Solicitation & Selection
Prior to April 1915, the United States Mint was exceptionally busy both materially as well as politically. Since 1905, multiple administrations had been pushing the Mint to change coin designs. A win of sort had happened in 1907 and 1908 with the redesigns of the Double Eagle, Half Eagle, and Quarter Eagle gold coins. This was further compounded why the design change of the Cent, from the Indian Head Cent to the Lincoln Cent, in 1909. Up to that point, Mint officials had largely been able to avoid changing the Dime, Quarter, and Half Dollar, citing legislative limits that the coins had not been in circulation for 25 years. But there was another and equally important internal aspect to this situation.
Charles E. Barber.
Mr. Barber had been the Mint Chief Engraver for 36 years by 1915 and was the designer and engraver of the Dime, Quarter, and Half Dollar that were in circulation at the time. There appears – although not explicitly stated any any research I could find – to be little appetite within the Mint to go against the long time designer. The coinage he designed had been introduced in 1892 and were striking similar across the three coins. Interestingly, the birth of these designs were also shrouded in controversy as, after a failed competition, then Mint Director Edward Leech directed Barber to prepare new designs for the three coins. Effectively Barber had been given free reign and he took advantage of it. Upon the release of the Barber coinage, the public outcry was harsh with many not liking both the similarity in look of the coins, but the overall designs themselves.
Indeed, many Numismatics consider the Barber coinage some of the ugliest in U.S. coinage history.
Things began to change however in April 1915 with Robert Woolley taking office as the Mint Director. Shortly after taking office, on April 14, 1915, he asked the Superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint, Adam Joyce, to request from Barber new designs for the Dime, Quarter, and Half Dollar. At the same time, Assistant Secretary of the Treasure, William Malburn requested the views of the Treasury Department’s legal team to make sure that new designs of coins could indeed be done in 1916. The Solicitors Office replied on April 17, 1915 that there was no reason the designs of the coins could not be changed. Effectively nothing happened between April and October 1915 that has been recorded. It is possible that Barber indeed worked on designs during the seven month period but that is unclear. Further, we do know that Barber was called to Washington, D.C. by Director Woolley in October 1915 but it is unknown if Barber provided Woolley with designs and sketches during those meetings.
In December 1915, Director Woolley met with the Commission of Fine Art in which he asked the Commission to review sketches produced by the Mint’s engraving department. Barber was present at the meeting but records indicate that he was there merely to explain the coin making process, not necessarily to present or defend any sketches. It is known that the sketches presented were from Barber. Additionally, Director Woolley indicated to the Commission that the coinage had to change due to it being in use for 25 years, a misinterpretation of the law as mentioned previously. The Commissions response to the designs appears to have been lackluster. They were not pleased with any of them and Director Woolley indicated that if they did not like what had been presented that they should select sculptors to submit designs for the new Dime, Quarter, and Half Dollar. Whether this was a ploy to get the Commission to accept the Mint’s work or a genuine suggestion, the Commission to him up on it. Within weeks the Commission had selected three sculptors to submit designs and arguably, some of the most beautiful coins were the result of it.
The three sculptors tapped to submit proposals were Adolph Weinman, Hermon MacNeil, and Albin Polasek. They were told that they could submit multiple sketches and each did so by February 1916. On February 23, 1916 the three sculptors met with Director Woolley in New York City to present their sketches and to answer any questions. Five days later, on February 28, Weinman was informed that his no less than five of his entries had been selected. His designs were selected for the Obverse and Reverse of the Dime and Half Dollar and the Reverse of the Quarter. Meanwhile, MacNeil was informed that his design for the Obverse of the Quarter and Polasek was informed that none of his designs were accepted. Shortly thereafter, members of the Commission of Fine Arts raised concerns around the five designs entrusted to Weinman, feeling it was a case of putting too many eggs into one basket. Woolley capitulated, by force majeure or in agreement, and the Reverse of the Quarter was also added to MacNeil’s docket of work.
As you would expect, Chief Mint Engraver Barber was not pleased. He was informed on March 3, 1916 – the same day that the new coins were announced to the public – that his designs were rejected and that the designs of Weinman and MacNeil would be used for the coins. Further, he was told to expect models to arrive at the Philadelphia Mint no later than May 1, 1916. In the press released, the Treasury indicated that they desired to have the new coins in production in roughly two months. However, given that the models were not expected to arrive by the latest May 1, that likely was never really an option. It was optimist. Further, Barber provided little help. Numismatic Historian Walter Breen indicated in his book Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins that Barber became “sullen and totally uncooperative” after being informed his designs had been rejected. He made the work of Weinman and MacNeil all-the-more difficult by creating often times unnecessary obstacles in the way of the artists to finalize their designs and models. In fairness to Barber, he was essentially being asked to eliminate is own life’s work. As David Lange indicates in his book A Complete Guide Book to Mercury Dimes, Barber was being “participate in the systematic undoing of a lifetime’s achievements.” Fundamentally, Barber had little choice in the matter.
Adolph Weinman never disclosed his model for the Obverse of the Mercury Dime and no individual every came forward claiming to be the model. However, it is widely believed that the model for the design was Elsie Stevens, the wife of Wallace Stevens, a lawyer, insurance executive, and later a poet. The design itself depicts Liberty wearing a traditional Pileus, a type of hat from Ancient Greece, the Middle East, and Ancient Rome. The hat depicted in the design is a winged cap. Why he chose this is up for debate. Weinman himself wrote that he considers the cap to symbolize “liberty of thought” but many in the Numismatic community believe it can be derived from his study under Augustus Saint-Gaudens who appreciated the effect of feathers in relief on designs. Regardless of the source, it took less than a year for the nickname “Mercury Dime” to be applied to the coin.
More on that later.
The Reverse of the coins depicts a fasces which represents war and justice. This is contrasted by the large olive branch which traditionally symbolizes peace. The lettering on the Reverse was a Roman style block lettering which initially caused a challenge when the first test coins were struck. The type was modified slightly to assure it would be struck with detail. There were also problems with the thickness of the coin – or so it was thought. Two companies, AT&T and American Sales Machines, complained that the dime was too thick to work in their phones and counterfeit detectors respectively. The reality was that the coin itself was not too the but rather the rim of the coin was struck too high. Weinman modified the design to move the word LIBERTY slightly from the rim. This satisfied the companies and dies with the modified design were authorized on October 6, 1916.
Release and The Nickname
The Winged Head Liberty Dime was released into circulation on October 30, 1916. On that day, the Barber dime production ceased across all Mint facilities. Reception of the new Dime was strong with mostly praise coming form news sources about the coin. It was certainly the highest praised coin of the three released in 1916. There was some initial displeasure with the “W” monogram on the Obverse for Weinman (just behind Liberty’s neck) but that was squelched quickly as Mint Director Joyce.
According to David Lange’s research, the first time the nickname “Mercury Dime” was used for the coin was in 1917. Then, a letter to the editor of the January 1917 The Numismatist references the coin by this name.
This misattribution appeared almost immediately in the popular press, as writers imagined that the obviously female Liberty was actually a representation of Mercury, messenger to the Roman gods of mythology and quite certainly a male. It is popularly known as the Mercury Dime even today, despite noble but ill-fated attempts by some publications to reverse this error.David Lange, A Complete Guide Book to Mercury Dimes
Once the new nickname began circulating, the proverbial horse was well and truly out of the barn. The name has stuck since and most Numismatists today simply refer to the coin as the Mercury Dime.
Production & Life of The Mercury Dime
The production and life of the Mercury Dime is pockmarked with economic challenges that impacted it multiple times throughout its 29 years of production. Generally speaking, the Dime was produced in substantial numbers until 1930 with some notable exceptions. First, is the 1916-D, the first year of production for the coin. The Denver Mint only produced 264,000 of the coins, well below the 22 million that were produced in Philadelphia. The cause of this was the Mint itself. Mint Director Friedrich Johannes Hugo von Engelken in November 1916 informed the superintendents of the three Mint facilities that a large order for Quarters had been received. The Denver Mint was instructed to only strike Quarter Dollars to assure that the order was filled. The knock-on effect is that the 1917-D coin is also relatively scarce. Only 9.4 million of the coins were struck that year in Denver compared to the 55.2 million struck in Philadelphia.
From 1921 to 1923, the economy of the United States was struggling and production of the Dime was impacted. In fact, there were no Dimes struck in 1922. The last time that had happened was 1926. Mintage again dropped in 1930 and 1931 with the onset of the Great Depression and production was again suspended in 1932 and 1933. Production resumed in earnest in 1934 and remained strong until the end of the series in 1945. In total, some 2.677 billion Mercury dimes were produced during its 29 years of production.
The production likely would have continued longer had it not been for the death of President Franklin Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. Mint Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock designed the Roosevelt dime which was aimed to honor the late President. The decision to put Roosevelt’s likeness on the Dime was an easy one for the Mint to make given his close association with the March of Dimes. The Roosevelt Dime was first struck on January 19, 1946 and released into circulation on January 30, 1946, ending the production of the Mercury Dime.
In 2016, the centennial of the release of the Winged Head Liberty Dime was honored by the United States Mint. 125,000 of these gold Mercury Dimes were offered on April 21, 2016 and, not surprisingly, the coins became unavailable within 45 minutes of their release. The Mint offered a second round of the remaining coins on December 15, 2016 which sold out within 90 minutes despite the limit of one per household.
With the exception of the 1916-D, 1921, and 1921-D, the vast majority of Mercury Dime releases are reasonably affordable and can be obtained in high grades. The biggest challenge with the coin is that many were struck lightly with the details of the fasces on the Reverse not being well defined. But even well struck specimens are under $50 in most cases in MS-60 or MS-63.
- Lange, David W. (1993). A Complete Guide Book to Mercury Dimes. Virginia Beach, Va.: DLRC Press. ISBN 978-1-880731-17-8.
- Lange, David W. (2006). History of the United States Mint and its Coinage. Atlanta, Ga.: Whitman Publishing LLC. ISBN 978-0-7948-1972-9.
- Breen, Walter (1988). Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins. New York, N.Y.: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-14207-6.