What is a Mercury Dime?
The Mercury Dime is one of America’s most beloved coins. Many Americans remember seeing this attractive coin in circulation, as it was struck from 1916 through 1945. Examples could be seen in everyday pocket change into the 1960s. Collectors have long been attracted to the Mercury Dime series, as a complete set can be assembled relatively easily and affordably. Both numismatists and historians have hailed the coin for its symbolism—especially with regard to World War I.
Around 1906, Theodore Roosevelt ordered that America’s gold coinage be completely redesigned. Decades-old stale motifs were scrapped in favor of new designs. This movement led to the beautiful $10 and $20 gold pieces conceived by Augustus St. Gaudens and the unique Indian Head designs found on the $2.50 and $5 Indians. Once the gold denominations had been revamped, the attention shifted to America’s copper, silver and nickel coinage.
To create the new designs, the US Mint commissioned outside artists rather than delegate the task to staff engravers. The motivation was that the existing US Mint staff would create plain designs that were easy to strike but lacking in creativity. Instead, Mint officials held a design competition among numerous outside artists and sculptors. This approach proved wildly successful; it resulted in iconic coinage designs like the Lincoln cent, Buffalo nickel and Mercury dime.
The winning artist for the silver dime design was Adolph Weinman, who also created the beautiful Walking Liberty half dollar motif. The obverse featured an image of Liberty wearing a winged cap; the American public immediately—but incorrectly—assumed this was a portrait of the Greek goddess Mercury. Nonetheless the nickname stuck and the coin has been known as the Mercury Dime ever since.
The reverse displays a bundle of wooden rods bound together with an axe surrounded by olive branches. This was meant to symbolize strength combined with a desire for peace—a sort of “don’t tread on me” message. Art historians believe this design was inspired by World War I and America’s role as a powerful, peace-making military force.
Numismatists have long enjoyed collecting the Mercury Dime series by date; many issues are extremely affordable and even the “key” dates can be had for reasonable amounts. The 1916-D is considered the most valuable date; values range from $500 for extremely well-worn specimens to $10k for Uncirculated coins. Another key date is the 1942/1 overdate; this issue displays the second numeral 1 boldly overpunched with the numeral 2. This dramatic die blunder is both scarce and relatively valuable; average circulated pieces command $500-$750.