[The following excerpt is published courtesy of DLRC Press and its author, David W. Lange. This information was originally published in 2005 in The Complete Guide to Mercury Dimes]
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The Winged Head Liberty Dime of 1916 features a very busy pictorial for such a small coin. Nevertheless, all of the elements are arranged attractively and make for a pleasing whole.
The obverse of Adolph A. Weinman’s dime is dominated by the left-facing profile bust of a young woman whom we know to be the goddess Liberty. She has thickly curled hair framing her face, and these curls are held in check by the close fitting cap she wears. Her cap is somewhat suggestive of a cloche hat, fashionable for women circa 1924-30. Still, the folded top to the cap reveals that it is not so tight fitting as this. Her head is further adorned with a pair of wings, only one of which is visible. Arranged in a peripheral arc is the legend LIBERTY. To the left of Liberty’s neck is the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, while to the right appear the designer’s monogrammed initials, a W superimposed over an A. Below the truncation of Liberty’s bust is the date of coining. Surrounding the whole is a plain, raised border.
The coin’s reverse features a fasces, the symbol of power and authority carried by Roman magistrates in ancient times. The fasces was a wooden handled ax encased within a bundle of wood or iron rods. The rods were held securely against the handle by a leather thong wound around them both horizontally and diagonally. Above the rods protruded the ax head.
Balancing the theme of strength with one of peace, the fasces is intertwined with an olive branch. Arranged peripherally in large letters are the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA above and the denomination ONE DIME below. Serving as stops to these inscriptions are a pair of five-pointed stars at the four o’clock and eight o’clock positions, respectively. The individual words that proclaim the nation’s identity are distinguished through the placement of tiny dots. To the right of the fasces appears the Latin legend E PLURIBUS UNUM. A plain, raised border encloses all.
The Winged Head Liberty Dime of 1916-45 conforms to the standard specifications in effect for this denomination from 1873 through 1964.
Its gross weight is 2.50 grams of .900 fine silver, the balance of the alloy being copper. It has a diameter of 17.9 millimeters and, like all United States dimes before or since, it bears a reeded edge.
As the first of the three new silver coins to appear in circulation, the dime drew the lion’s share of attention from the numismatic community. Upon its release, Frank G. Duffield, editor of The Numismatist, wrote to Adolph A. Weinman seeking the artist’s own interpretation of his work. Weinman replied thusly:
In response to your letter of November 14, requesting a word of explanation as to my reasons for selecting a winged female head for the design of the obverse, and the fasces for the reverse of the new dime, permit me to say that the law on the coinage of the United States stipulates that on all subsidiary coins there shall appear upon the obverse a figure or representation of Liberty. Hence the head of Liberty, the coin being obviously too small in size to make the representation of a full-length figure of Liberty advisable. The wings crowning her cap are intended to symbolize liberty of thought. As to the reverse of the dime, the law does not stipulate what is to appear upon this side of the coin, while it does specifically state that upon the reverse of the quarter dollar and the half dollar shall appear the figure of an eagle. I have selected the motive of the fasces and olive branch to symbolize the strength which lies in unity, while the battle-ax stands for preparedness to defend the Union. The branch of olive is symbolical of our love of peace.1
The Numismatist, in its December 1916 issue, published letters from several prominent figures, relating their views of the new coin. Some were simple and straight to the point, such as the evaluation by tireless numismatic promoter Farran Zerbe, “I am delighted with the new dime.” Henry Chapman, the elder statesman of Philadelphia dealers, proclaimed, “I think the new dime a very creditable production, and am glad to see such an artistic coin come out from this country.” Fellow dealer J. W. Scott provided perhaps the grandest pronouncement when he declared, “The new dime is the best piece of work that the United States mint has turned out in a century.”
Others qualified their praise, such as numismatic researcher Edgar H. Adams: “The new dime, in my opinion, is one of the handsomest coins of the denomination that has been issued for regular circulation in this country. There are a few minor features which may be criticized [sic], but the general effect is very commendable.” Dealer and publisher Wayte Raymond of New York City likewise had some doubts: “I think very favorably of the new dimes. The head of Liberty has considerable resemblance to some coins of the Roman Republic, and is very artistic. The only criticism I have to make is the fact that the words ‘In God We Trust’ and the date seem to be placed on the die as an afterthought, as there is really no place for them on the obverse.”
Raymond’s comments seem a little unfair to the artist, given the statutory requirements for United States coins under which all designers must labor. The intrusive nature of all these inscriptions was a subject touched upon by classical numismatist Howland Wood:
The new dime by Adolph A. Weinman is without a doubt the finest example of our new coinage which was begun in 1907 with the advent of the $20 and $10 gold pieces. Before commenting on any of the new pieces it is but fair to consider the limitations and difficulties that beset the designer. Artistic rendering and a super-abundance of lettering do not go hand in hand towards the best results. Our artists at the start are handicapped by having to place on the coin “United States of America,” “E Pluribus Unum,” “Liberty,” “In God We Trust,” the date and the denomination. In other words, six separate mottoes or legends. Consequently, the artist cannot strive for simplicity, and, despite his best endeavors, one or both sides of the coin are bound to be chopped up with a lot of discordant elements.
In keeping with his commercial nature, B. Max Mehl’s review of the new dime was supplemented with an appraisal of the marketing advantages to be realized:
To my mind it did not require very artistic efforts to excel the old issue. The new issue is indeed a welcome addition to our coinage, and one which I think will meet with the approval of thinking numismatists. From a business standpoint I think any new issue is a good thing for the numismatic profession, as it seems to stimulate interest not only among collectors, but among non-collectors, and is the means of bringing out a considerable number of new collectors.
Perhaps the most interesting comments were those of David Proskey, one of the more highly respected numismatic authorities of that time. In his letter to Editor Duffield, Proskey lets slip a most revealing reference:
The new dime is far more beautiful than any since the 1807 issue – but not nearly so beautiful in execution nor so appropriate in design as any of the issues from 1796 to 1807. The profile of “Liberty” is strongly masculine as to chin. The Phrygian cap, typical of Liberty, is adorned with a wing similar to that we are accustomed to see on the cap of Mercury…2
Herein lies the earliest association of the Winged Head Liberty Dime with the male god Mercury. While Proskey’s remarks are not likely to have led directly to Weinman’s design becoming known as the Mercury Dime, this appellation has achieved the status of conventional wisdom among the general press and public. No attempt at correction by the numismatic community has ever been able to dislodge such false notions, and the misnomer Mercury Dime has been in general usage almost since the coin’s inception.
Persons knowledgeable as to the exact outfitting of the Roman god Mercury would realize that the similarities are only superficial. Mercury, or Hermes as he was known to the Greeks, was the god of commerce, property and wealth. Furthermore, he served as messenger to the gods. To move with the speed desired of a messenger, Mercury wore winged sandals and, in some depictions, a winged helmet. This hat was in no way similar to the cap depicted on Weinman’s Liberty, but the concept was enough to make a ready association between the two figures. Mercury’s hat is typical of that worn by messengers in ancient times. Known as a petasus, it displayed a flat, shallow crown and broad brim. This is quite unlike the cap of Liberty, which covers nearly her entire head with enough material remaining to fold over in a loose bun. Hers is more typical of the Phrygian cap, a fact noted by Proskey. Here is yet another symbol which survives from the ancient Greeks. This cap, also known as a pileus, was worn by freed slaves in proclamation of their new status. It is a recurring feature on the coinage of the United States, as it denotes liberty. Clearly, this was Weinman’s intent in using it.
Although few objections were made to the youthful portrait of Liberty, the same could not be said for the reverse of the Winged Head Liberty Dime. Its lack of simplicity as compared to earlier types drew some unfavorable comments from within the numismatic community, but the principal objections seemed to be with the design’s political implications. Despite being subdued somewhat by the presence of an olive branch symbolizing peace, the aggressive implications of a coin bearing a fasces were deemed a bad omen by many observers. Indeed, within six months of the dime’s introduction America was at war with Germany and the Central Powers.
After the end of World War I, yet another problem arose. This centered around the use of the fasces as a rallying symbol by the “blackshirts” of Italy’s Benito Mussolini. This development led to the coining of a new word, “fascism.” Proponents of fascism espoused a philosophy which was the very antithesis of American liberty, and this proved a source of consternation to some. Typical of many letters to the editors of newspapers and to government officials is the following. It differs from most only in that the writer does not reveal an ignorance of our coinage so typical of the non-numismatic public. The letter was written by J. Milton Strauss and addressed to Andrew L. Somers, chairman of the House Committee on Coinage, Weights and Measures:
The fasces, which is the emblem of Fascism, the present form of government in Italy, strangely enough appears on the reverse of our dime. Although it appears on this coinage as early as 1916, and although it was not officially adopted by Mussolini and his followers until 1919, future world historians delving into the past through numismatics, as is often their custom, are liable to draw the conclusion that the United States and not Italy was the birthplace of Fascism. Let us somehow immediately correct any such possibility, and at least remove this design, as the fasces is now most un-American and might some day cast a reflection on our constitutional form of government.3
A more organized movement to displace Weinman’s design was staged in 1939, when a resolution was introduced in Congress to have the delicate portrait of Liberty replaced with a bust of Benjamin Franklin. According to The New York Times, “A resolution adopted by the Sons of the American Revolution asking that the likeness of Benjamin Franklin be placed on the dime will appeal to those Americans who believed that there are never too many ways in which to pay honor to one of the greatest of Americans. The present dime, with its fasces, olive branch and feminized Mercury, might have come from a European mint…” 4
No action was taken at that time, since the Winged Liberty Dime had not yet reached its statutory minimum life of 25 years. When this time finally came in 1940, no alterations were undertaken, despite the ongoing movement to replace Liberty with a portrait of Ben Franklin. The onset of World War II had revitalized American industry, and the increased demand for coins evidently kept the U. S. Mint fully occupied. A change in existing designs would certainly result in decreased production of the affected denomination, if only for a few months. In 1941 Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross responded to a letter from American Numismatic Association President L. W. Hoffecker with respect to the proposed Franklin Dime:
No change in the design of the current dime is at present contemplated. Should a change, however, be determined upon, you may be sure that consideration will be given to the advocacy of the American Numismatic Association that the portrait of Benjamin Franklin be used, who was outstanding among the early patriots for his brilliance, versatility and usefulness. 5
Even when Italy declared war on the United States, protests over the fascist dime were insufficient to bring about any but the most essential changes in our coinage for the duration. Such changes were limited to replacing critical metals needed for the war effort with more readily available materials. As silver was abundant in the United States, the dime was not affected by any wartime measures. Only the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the call for a circulating commemorative with his portrait ultimately led to the replacement of the Mercury Dime after 1945. The honoring of Benjamin Franklin was postponed until 1948, when his bust was placed on the half dollar following the retirement of Weinman’s other design.