[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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“a new design may, therefore, be adopted in 1916 . . .”
The coinage Act of September 26, 1890 amended Section 3510 of the Revised Statutes of the United States to read in part:
The Director of the Mint shall have power, with the approval 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. But no change in the design or die of any coin shall be made more often 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…
At a meeting of the New York Numismatic Club in December of 1914, a letter was read from prominent New York City coin dealer and general critic of all matters numismatic, Thomas L. Elder, in which Elder drew the club’s attention to this provision of the law and urged that a movement be started to create new designs for the fractional silver coinage of the United States. As reported by The New York Times December 11, Elder, a member of the club’s Executive Committee, was urging that a special committee be appointed to petition the government for “more artistic designs.”
In detailing the changes made to the gold coinage beginning in 1907, Elder went on to observe that, “after all the attempts of our Government to improve our coinage, the most abominable products of our mints, the half dollar, the quarter, and the dime, remain. The figure of Liberty on the coins is a mere caricature. The head, as it appears at present, is an insult both to the Goddess of Liberty and to the beauty of American womanhood.”
What the Treasury Department may have thought of Elder’s commentary is not recorded, but it is evident that the club’s petition seeking new designs for the fractional silver pieces made its way to the right party. An undated memorandum was sent in January of 1915 from Frederic P. Dewey* to Assistant Treasury Secretary William P. Malburn, in which Dewey listed the first year of coining and the names of the artists for each of the denominations then current. Armed with this information, Malburn then wrote on January 18 to his boss, Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo:
From the accompanying memorandum of the Acting Director of the Mint you will observe that the present silver half dollar, quarter dollar and dime were changed in 1892, and a new design may, therefore, be adopted in 1917 [7 corrected by hand to 6]. This can be done any time in the year, and, therefore, if you desire, a design may be made and coinage commenced on January 2 of that year.
Written in Malburn’s hand at the bottom of this memo is the notation, “Secy says take this up later,” to which McAdoo further added, “W.P.M. – Let the Mint submit designs before we try anybody else – .” Finally, the memo bears an additional notation indicating that it was received by Acting Director Dewey on March 14, 1915.
It’s surprising that Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo would take a more than bureaucratic interest in the nation’s coinage, which could easily have gone on with the same staid, Victorian Era designs, but then this was a time of great vitality in the nation. It was the Progressive Age, and there existed a widespread movement toward reform in both government and the economy. The White House was occupied by an idealistic individual, educator Woodrow Wilson, and a general sense of public advancement in terms of health and morality pervaded much of American society. While some of the reforms enacted during that decade would prove to be double-edged swords, such as the prohibition of alcohol sales and consumption, with its resulting crime wave, there was a general improvement in the quality of life for most Americans.
This movement toward reform had a great influence on the arts, as well. It was in 1910 that the federal Commission of Fine Arts was created to oversee all aspects of design in government projects. While this role was not extended to coinage design officially until 1921, the Commission was informally consulted on such matters almost from its inception, as we shall see.
It was during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) that the nation’s chief executive first took an active role in the process of coin design. His initiative resulted in several of our finest coin types, including the four new gold coins introduced in 1907-08 and the familiar Lincoln Cent which, in modified form, is still being coined today. This spirit of artistic improvement carried over within the Treasury Department under Roosevelt’s successor, William H. Taft, and his administration produced the glorious Indian Head and Buffalo Nickel in 1913, considered by many numismatists to be the USA’s finest coin type.
It seemed clear enough from a reading of the 1890 law that the three fractional silver denominations of dime, quarter dollar and half dollar were now eligible for new designs, but Assistant Secretary Malburn wanted to be certain before proceeding with the project. He wrote to Solicitor of the Treasury Lawrence Beel on April 14, 1915 seeking a legal opinion:
The facts being that, as shown by the Annual Report of the Director of the Mint, 1891, p. 71, the present designs for our subsidiary silver coins were adopted in 1891, while, as shown by the Catalogue of Coins in the Philadelphia Mint, pp. 62, 67 and 72, no coins of these designs were issued until 1892; I would thank you for your opinion as to whether it would be lawful and in accordance with Sec. 3510 R. S., as amended September 26, 1890, (Stat. L., 26 484) to adopt new designs and issue coins therefrom in 1916. It seems to me that new coins could be issued in 1916.
The Solicitor responded by memorandum three days later that these coins were indeed eligible for new designs. By this time the new Mint Director, Robert Wickliffe Woolley, had assumed office at the Mint Bureau in Washington, DC. He was quickly apprised of the coin design initiative, and he wrote to Philadelphia Mint Superintendent Adam M. Joyce on April 14:
The Secretary of the Treasury is very anxious that the work on designs for the silver half and quarter dollar and dime, for coinage in 1916, be begun as soon as Mr. Barber conveniently can do so. Of course, the Panama medal, etc., have right of way. Will you please take this matter up with him and I will see you on my return from the Pacific coast.
Woolley was going west to inspect the installation of new equipment at the San Francisco Mint for the coining of commemorative issues for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, including the novel and massive fifty-dollar pieces. The subject of these coins occupied much of the Mint’s correspondence during the latter months of 1914 and the first months of 1915, and it was quite an undertaking.
It was clearly the intention at this stage to have U. S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber submit models for the new coins of 1916, though McAdoo’s addendum to the memo of January 18, quoted above, suggests that this was merely a procedural consideration. Beginning in 1907 Barber’s designs had been rejected repeatedly in favor of those furnished by outside artists, but it was in keeping with tradition and respect for his position that he was given the first opportunity.
The selection and refinement of designs for the Panama-Pacific coins, as well as technical obstacles to coining the fifty-dollar pieces, provided enough drama for the Mint that the subject of new fractional silver coins for 1916 was put aside for several months. It was not until October of 1915 that the trail of correspondence picks up again. On the 6th, Director Woolley wrote to Charles Barber at the Philadelphia Mint, “You are hereby authorized and directed to come to Washington on Friday, October 8th, for conference with this Office in connection with coin designs.”
It is not clear from this letter whether Barber had already prepared his models but, in any event, they would ultimately prove to be unsatisfactory. While technically proficient and extremely knowledgeable in all aspects of coining technology, Charles Barber was simply too much a Victorian in his artistic taste. Grounded in the classical art that dominated much of the 19th Century, all of Barber’s creations reflected this fashion which, by the early 20th Century, was quite at odds with the realistic trend in art. His coin designs included the very ones which were now to be replaced, and it appeared doubtful that he would achieve any artist breakthroughs.
Born in England in 1840, Charles E. Barber immigrated to America thirteen years later with his family. Father William Barber was a skilled engraver who assumed the role of Chief Engraver of the U. S. Mint in 1869, following the death of longtime predecessor James B. Longacre. The elder Barber was assisted in this capacity by son Charles, who succeeded his father as Chief Engraver upon William’s death in 1879. By 1915 Charles Barber has outlived nearly everyone of his generation at the Mint, with the notable exception of fellow Englishman and longtime rival, Assistant Engraver George T. Morgan. It was Morgan who would finally succeed Barber as Chief Engraver when the latter passed away, two years later.
“I beg that you suggest the names of artists who are capable of undertaking this work.”
The Act of September 26, 1890, which permitted the adoption of new coin designs after 25 years of use, also made provision for the temporary employment of artists not directly associated with the Mint. This had been the desperate response of Congress to the coin designs of that period, which even then were perceived as staid and antiquated. It would also prove to be Barber’s undoing with respect to the circulating coinage, though he, along with Morgan, still enjoyed a near monopoly on the designs of commemorative coins and medals.
A curious aside to the search for new designs is that it drew the attention of one such outside artist who had already scored a hit at the Mint. On November 27, 1915 Director Woolley responded to a letter sent him by Victor D. Brenner, designer of the Lincoln Cent:
I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 24th instant relative to new designs for the subsidiary coins. The series of designs now in this Bureau have been called to my attention. No steps have yet been taken looking to the submission of designs by outside artists.
In a break with the longstanding tradition of utilizing similar designs for each of the silver denominations, a practice inherited from Europe, the Treasury Department opted to go with unique compositions for the three different coins. Once Barber had submitted his models, Mint Director Woolley wrote to the Chief Engraver on December 1, “You are hereby authorized and requested to visit Washington to attend a meeting of the Fine Arts Commission at eleven o’clock, Friday, December 3, 1915, on business connected with coin design.” It’s likely that Barber already anticipated the outcome of this meeting. Indeed, Woolley, in a letter dated December 2 and initialed by McAdoo, signaled their intention to the Commission of Fine Arts:
A period of twenty-five years having nearly elapsed since the adoption of the designs of the half-dollar, quarter dollar and one-dime pieces, it becomes the privilege of the undersigned, under the law, to consider new designs for these coins, and I have the honor to invite the distinguished cooperation of the Fine Arts Commission in performing this important and difficult task.
I take pleasure in submitting to you a number of tentative designs prepared by the Engraver of the Philadelphia Mint and ask for your early criticism thereof.
Should you deem it necessary to call for other sketches I beg that you suggest the names of artists who in your opinion are capable of undertaking this work.
Note that Woolley and McAdoo asked for the names of specific individuals, rather than suggesting an open design competition. In the Mint’s only previous experience with a public competition, the results had been less than satisfactory. Seeking new designs to replace Christian Gobrecht’s seated figure of Liberty on the silver coins, in 1891 the Mint announced a contest in which all artists were invited to participate. To sculptors of established worth, however, both the remuneration and the submission period seemed inadequate. A boycott of the competition by all qualified parties resulted in the Mint receiving a couple of hundred amateurishly rendered sketches from would-be artists of no merit. To the great satisfaction of Charles Barber, Mint Director Edward O. Leech had had no alternative but to proceed with the Chief Engraver’s own submissions.
For the new silver coins of 1916, Director Woolley and Treasury Secretary McAdoo seemed inclined to hold a limited competition, the terms of which were as yet uncertain. The creation of the Commission of Fine Arts in 1910 made this undertaking more desirable than had been the case previously. Charged with the overseeing of all governmental art projects, the Commission was composed of several individuals from within the various arts. It members were highly respected, and in later years the Commission’s approval would come to be sought in the finalizing of all coin designs. As noted previously, however, in 1915 its participation was merely a courtesy.
In its meeting of December 3, 1915 the Commission hosted Woolley and Barber as it reviewed the latter’s models. The minutes of this meeting reveal that a misinterpretation of the 1890 law had led the participants to believe that a redesign of the fractional silver coins was not optional, but rather mandatory:
Twenty-five years having nearly elapsed since the adoption of the present designs of halfdollar, quarter-dollar and one-dime pieces, under the law coins with new designs will have to be issued… Mr. Woolley stated that before going to an outside designer the Mint had their designer, Mr. Barber, prepare a number of preliminary designs which he had brought with him, and laid before the Commission. Mr. Barber was present in consultation. Considerable discussion ensued. Mr. Woolley, after leaving the meeting, returned at one o’clock the following day and lunched with the Commission. During the luncheon the details of the problem were again discussed with him.
It’s significant that Woolley returned alone to meet with the Commission the following day, as the subject of this second meeting was no doubt the unsuitability of Barber’s models.
In a cover letter to Woolley dated December 9, 1915 the Commission’s Secretary and Executive Officer, Colonel William W. Harts, relates that a sub-committee had been appointed to work with the Mint in the matter of new designs for the three silver pieces. The committee was chaired by sculptor Herbert Adams and also included painter Edwin Howland Blashfield, both of whom signed a December 8 letter addressed to Director Woolley, which Colonel Harts enclosed with his own. The Adams/Blashfield letter makes reference to three sculptors who were selected by the sub-committee as candidates for design submissions, observing that “they all realize the great educational value of a beautiful coinage, and appreciate the honor bestowed upon an artist asked to design a coin which is to be seen by millions of people every day.” The letter went on to further extol their candidates’ virtues:
From what I know of these men, I felt that they would naturally attack the problem in a practical manner, and I found on talking with them that each of them agrees with me that the only logical way to approach such a problem would be to go to the Mint, study the methods of manufacture and learn the practical requirements, at the very start. I believe each of these men has the artistic ability to produce a design which will be a credit to the administration, and that they would be practical in adapting their work to the requirements of modern coinage.
These artists had been contacted only informally about their willingness to participate in an invitational competition, and it was requested of Woolley that the three not be told of the Commission’s recommendation. The difficulties and compromises experienced in the creation of acceptable coin models and in dealing with the Chief Engraver were well known to most American sculptors; they had heard the horror stories related by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, James Earle Fraser and Victor D. Brenner, all of whom had had to overcome the road blocks put in their paths by Barber. Bearing this in mind, and not wishing to frighten these artists away, Adams had discreetly inquired of the three candidates their inclination to cooperate with the Mint. Woolley replied to Colonel Harts on December 18:
I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of December 9th relative to new designs for the subsidiary coins, and transmitting an informal letter received from Mr. McAdam [sic], stating that he had talked with each of the three sculptors mentioned in his letter as to their willingness to cooperate with the Mint on the practical side, if asked to submit designs.
Your wish that the sculptors be not informed that their names were suggested by the Commission will be complied with gladly.
My conference with the members of the Commission was pleasant and satisfactory and I wish to thank you personally for your courtesy to me.
The three sculptors suggested by the Commission included Hermon Atkins MacNeil and Adolph Alexander Weinman, both of New York City, and Albin Polásek of Chicago. The first two are, of course, quite well known to collectors of United States coins, as they were ultimately successful in having their designs selected for the coinage of 1916. Polásek, however, is a name that does not ring a bell with American coin enthusiasts, as all of his sculpting achievements were outside of the numismatic arena.
A native of Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic), Polásek was born in 1879 and came to American at an early age. A student of the Pennsylvania Academy, he ultimately rose to become an instructor at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. His most notable works are busts of prominent Americans of his own time, including architect Charles F. McKim and financier J. P. Morgan.
After evidently conferring with Secretary McAdoo, Woolley, on December 22, sent identical letters to all three artists:
I desire to confer with you relative to the submission of a new design for the subsidiary coins of the United States, and would appreciate a call on me at the United States Assay Office, 24 Pine Street, New York, next Monday at 12, noon.
Woolley then wrote to Herbert Adams that same day:
I beg to thank you sincerely for conferring with Messrs. McNeil [sic], Weinman and Polasek, and to say that I have asked each of these gentlemen to meet me, at different hours, on Monday next in New York. It will be my pleasure to keep you advised as to the progress being made.
A few days later Woolley wrote to Superintendent Joyce at the Philadelphia Mint on the 27th, informing him of the latest developments:
I beg to inform you that Mr. Albion Polasek [sic], Mr. Norman A. McNeil [sic] and Mr. Adolph Weiman [sic], all of New York, have been commissioned to submit designs for the new subsidiary coins. Mr. Polasek will probably call on you tomorrow, Mr. McNeil on Wednesday and Mr. Weiman some time early next week. Please introduce them to Mr. Barber and request him to give them all possible information regarding the practical side of coin designing. I have assured them that all inquiries will be cheerfully responded to, and that in their efforts to create the best possible design they will receive from Mr. Barber and others at the Philadelphia Mint at all times hearty co-operation.
It’s plainly evident that Woolley had been told of Barber’s past history in obstructing the work of outside artists, and he was determined that these new participants would be handled with greater care. It’s not clear from the correspondence whether, at that point in the process, the three sculptors each knew of the others’ i n v o l v e m e n t . Woolley, in his correspondence with each individual, omitted the names of the other two. Typical is this December 28 letter to Weinman, identical to those sent to MacNeil and Polásek, in which the terms of the competition are outlined:
Following our talk of December 27th at the United States Assay Office, New York, with regard to new designs for subsidiary coins of the United States, I beg to commission you to submit designs under the following conditions:
First. That all requirements of law relating to dimensions, designs, devices and legends shall be complied with.
Second. That you are to submit several designs before April 13, 1916, and it is understood that under no circumstances will this time limit be extended.
Third. That if, after the submission of a reasonable number of designs, none, in the opinion of the Secretary of the Treasury and the Director of the Mint, is considered suitable, you will be paid the sum of $300 in complete and full satisfaction of your services.
Fourth. That if the Director of the Mint, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, decides to adopt one of your designs you are to be paid the sum of $2,000. upon acceptance, it being understood that you are to supply the Mint at your own expense with a satisfactory working model.
I beg to state in this connection that it is the intention of the Secretary of the Treasury and the Director of the Mint to ask the advice of the Commission of Fine Arts as to the suitability and appropriateness of the designs submitted by you.
I shall be pleased to be advised at the earliest possible moment whether or not the above conditions are accepted by you.
There was a lot riding on the outcome of this design search, and Woolley wanted to avoid a repeat of the disappointing 1891 episode. In this mission he had strong allies within the Commission of Fine Arts, as revealed in his letter of December 29 to Herbert Adams:
Colonel Harts called on me yesterday and showed me a telegram which he had just received from you. This morning he called again with Mr. Charles Moore, Chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, and brought your letter of December 28th. I took pleasure in explaining to them just what I had said to Messrs. McNeil [sic], Polasek and Weinman, and showed them the attached copy of my letter to each. Both of these gentlemen agreed that the arrangement as I understand it has due regard for the ethics of the Society of Sculptors, is fair to the sculptors commissioned, and safeguards the interests of the Government.
I tried to make clear to Messrs. McNeil, Polasek and Weinman that each was to submit designs suitable for the three subsidiary coins – the half-dollar, quarter-dollar and dime – and that the Secretary of the Treasury and myself reserve the right to accept one, two or three, or to reject all, – the excellence and appropriateness of the designs to be the determining factor in reaching a decision.
I have gone somewhat into the history of the selection of other designs of coins and medals and find that almost invariably there has been competition; in this particular case I feel that there is no competition because each man has an opportunity to get his design accepted, regardless of the merits of the work of another.
There were still some questions in the minds of the three sculptors, and a letter from Woolley to Adolph Weinman dated January 4, 1916 is fairly typical. In it the Director informs Weinman that his request for a commission of just a single coin denomination cannot be honored. Woolley further advises him that all submitted designs will be used as the Director and the Secretary determine, though the reverse of the quarter dollar and half dollar must have an eagle, while that of the dime will have no eagle.
Whatever misgivings these three artists may have had were set aside, and a number of designs were submitted in competition with those of Charles Barber. After examining about fifty sketch models, Treasury Secretary McAdoo and Mint Director Woolley selected three pairs which presented approximations of the coins ultimately struck for circulation. Writing to Weinman on February 28, Woolley informed him that his designs had been selected for both sides of the dime and the half dollar and for the reverse of the quarter. At some point a clarification was reached in which the quarter dollar was to be the work of Hermon MacNeil exclusively.
I beg to advise you that selections have been made from a large number of designs submitted for the proposed new subsidiary silver coins. The models submitted by Mr. Adolph Weinman have been chosen for the Half Dollar and the Dime, and the designs submitted by Mr. Hermon MacNeil have been determined upon for the Quarter Dollar.
It is understood that satisfactory working models are to be delivered to the Mint not later than May 1st, 1916, and they are to conform in all respects to the requirements of the Mint.
In advising you of the decisions reached I beg to express the appreciation of the Secretary of the Treasury and myself of the very beautiful designs submitted by you, and to thank you for your deep interest in the matter.
Numismatists may be able to judge for themselves the merits of Barber’s work. His submissions for the design competition of 1916 were displayed in a public hallway at the Philadelphia Mint as enlarged photo plaques at least as recently as 2000, though, with the Mint presently closed to informal tours, viewing them may be a bit of a challenge.
On the same day that Barber was informed his designs would not be used, the Mint distributed a press release announcing the new coins:
Within the next few months the Treasury will begin coinage of new half-dollars, 25-cent and 10-cent pieces. Designs of these coins must be changed by law every twenty-five years and the present twenty-five year period ends with 1916. The designs for the new coins have not been completed and the dies will not be ready for at least two months. It is expected that dies for the new coins will be shipped to the San Francisco Mint about May 1st.
The numismatic community was naturally delighted at the prospect of new coin issues, but the Mint was not particularly forthcoming. Soliciting further details about the new designs, Editor of The Numismatist, Frank G. Duffield, wrote to the Director and was told by him, “the Department has no available information in regard to them.”
As we now know, Adolph Weinman produced a charming profile bust of the youthful goddess Liberty wearing a cap surmounted by wings. To this obverse was paired a reverse design featuring a Roman fasces around which was wrapped the olive branch of peace. While described in official correspondence as the Winged Head Liberty type, it acquired, almost immediately upon its release circulation, the misnomer “Mercury Dime.”
Woolley sent a letter to Superintendent Joyce March 8, advising him of the selections made and cautioning him about the handling of the two artists involved: “Mr. Weinman and Mr. MacNeil are to visit the Mint for consultation with you and Mr. Barber, and I wish to have placed at their disposal every means of assistance at your command.” Despite this pre-emptive effort at avoiding conflict, Woolley had to again write to Joyce on the 29th:
I beg to enclose a letter to Mr. Barber.
Confidentially, the sculptors designing the new coins felt that on their last trip Mr. Morgan was much more cordial and cooperative than Mr. Barber was. I realize I am dealing with artistic temperaments at both ends.
As Don Taxay so ably observed in his book, The U.S. Mint and Coinage, Morgan was in a much better position to be cordial, as it was not his coin designs that were being replaced. In addition to knowing that his crowning achievements, the matching dime, quarter and half of 1892, were about to be terminated, Barber was further compelled to assist in the adoption of replacement designs by outsiders for the seventh time in less than ten years. This situation was not unique to the United States Mint, as Britain’s Royal Mint had recently done away with the position of Chief Engraver, deeming it obsolete. This act of finality did not occur at the U. S. Mint until decades later, but only a few of the new coin designs adopted since 1907 have been created entirely in-house.
“I would therefore request an extension of ten days or two weeks”
For a number of reasons, both technical and personal, the finalized designs for the dime and the other coins were not ready at the anticipated date. Preparing finished models from their initial designs proved more daunting for Weinman and MacNeil than either had imagined. Despite several visits to the Philadelphia Mint from his New York studio during the month of March, Weinman had not devised suitable models which Woolley could share with the Commission of Fine Arts. This is so noted by the Commission in the minutes of its March 31 meeting with Woolley.
The purpose of Weinman’s visits to the Mint was to obtain information regarding the technical requirements of his models so that they ultimately could reduced mechanically to suitable master hubs. Chief Engraver Barber proved his usual self, throwing various obstructions in the path of the hapless artist, and therein lay the primary cause of the delays. In one of their first scheduled meetings, Barber was in fact absent, and Weinman entered into a discussion with Assistant Engraver George T. Morgan. It’s likely that more useful information was obtained by Weinman in this meeting that in subsequent meetings with Barber, as Morgan had less reason to resent the presence of outsiders at the Mint.
Additional visits to the Mint saw little progress being made, and Weinman was compelled to forestall a meeting with Woolley planned for April 26. In a letter dated the previous day, he tendered his apology:
I have worked steadily upon the obverse of the Half Dollar and of the Dime but they will not be in shape for your final inspection tomorrow. Though I am pushing the work as rapidly as possible, it becomes quite apparent that the four models for the Half Dollar and the Dime cannot be completed for the date at which I promised them and I would therefore request an extension of ten days or two weeks.
Weinman’s delay was due in part to a severe case of tonsillitis which befell him that spring. Although the half dollar would continue to be problematic for some months, it was initially thought that the dime models would be ready for production by the close of the Mint’s fiscal year, June 30.
Progress was indeed being made, and Weinman wrote to Charles Barber from Buffalo, New York on June 6. His letter reads in part:
I am returning by express the remaining three bronze models for the Half Dollar &. the Dime. These should have reached you long before this date, but unfortunately I had been delayed by the founders having trouble with the first cast, which made necessary another set of casts as well as new plaster models.
I expect to be here for about ten days, but will make a special trip to see the reduction you will make, before my return to New York if you so advise it.
On the 22nd of that month, Weinman wrote Woolley, “Your letter dated May 29, 1916 informing me that the designs submitted by me for the proposed new Half Dollar and Dime have been accepted has just been received.”
Weinman goes on to mention that during the previous day’s visit to the Mint Barber had shown him two sample half dollars, one having a modeled background and the other a burnished background. This is significant, as sculptors of that era displayed a definite preference for medallic art with modeled or textured fields. The diffused luster exhibited by such pieces allowed for greater study of the design. It’s likely that Weinman’s original models possessed this feature and that Barber himself initiated the alternative finish, this being more in keeping with his conventional views on coinage. As it turned out, all three of the new coins were initially struck for circulation with textured fields, only to have the fields smoothed out when new hubs were introduced during 1917.
On June 24 the Director wrote to Superintendent Joyce:
The dime is all right. Please see that working dies for the three mints are made as rapidly as possible, in order that the coinage of the new dimes may be begun quickly. The demand for these coins is exceedingly great.
Everyone to whom the coins have been shown here thinks they are beautiful.
I beg to enjoin you not to pay out any of the new dimes until you have received special instructions from this office…
Woolley was not exaggerating when he wrote of the urgent demand for dimes, as none had been coined since the close of the previous year. In fact, no dies dated 1916 had been created for any of the silver denominations, since it was never imagined that they new designs would still be in the developmental stage so late in the year.
The Director’s declaration that the dime was ready for mass production proved premature, as just two days after instructing Superintendent Joyce to begin making working dies for all three mints, he again wrote to him that, “The lettering on the dime appears to be a trifle too indistinct…”
Studying the pattern coins illustrated in Chapter 2, it is almost a certainty that the dime to which he refers is Judd* variety number 1981, the earliest pattern known for this coin type. It does indeed have very shallow lettering which actually touches the coin’s rims. To his credit, Charles Barber would have avoided such a critical error, but for the fine art medallist Adolph A. Weinman, unfamiliar with the demands of high speed coining and mass production, this was an easy mistake to make.
Notwithstanding the fact that the dime models would once again have to be revised, Director Woolley advised Superintendent Joyce on June 28 that, “Mr. Weinman is to receive $4000 for his designs for the half dollar and the dime…”
It appears that these changes took several weeks, during which time the Director waited nervously as evermore reports came in regarding shortages of dimes and quarters in circulation. The halves, it was indicated, had been made in sufficient quantity the year before that stocks were still on hand.
On July 18 Adolph Weinman wrote to Charles Barber addressing the issue of shallow lettering and adding his concern over the smooth fields implemented by Barber without consulting him:
I am sending you today by parcel post the bronze cast of the reverse of the Dime. I have strengthened the lettering and have slightly simplified the foliage of the olive branch. The obverse for the Dime is now being cast in bronze and should be in your hands within a few days, if the bronze cast turns out satisfactory. I have also made the lettering stronger on this model.
I am troubled about the polished background of the two coins I have here. The reflection from the polished surface is so intense that one cannot get a clear impression of the design at all. W. Woolley agrees with me that the background of these coins should not be polished, and I greatly appreciate an expression of opinion from you in this matter.
Will you also kindly inform me when both dies for the Dime have been completed and a sample coin struck, with the dull surface, and I will come over to see them.
Weinman’s sense of diplomacy is quite evident in this letter, as he asks Barber for his opinion regarding the sculpted fields, knowing full well what the engraver’s view must be. It is obvious, too, from the date of the letter that Woolley’s goal of having the models ready by the end of Fiscal Year 1916 had already been necessarily abandoned.
In the mean time, the demand for additional dimes and quarters had built to the point at which the Mint was compelled to begin issuing 1916-dated coins with the old design. Barber must have secretly smiled to himself as his familiar Roman bust of Liberty once again dropped from the presses by the thousands, and then by the millions.
On August 14 Philadelphia Mint Superintendent Adam M. Joyce was summoned to New York “for the purpose of conferring with Mr. A. A. Weinman in regard to the corrections to be made upon the models for the dime of new designs.”
This letter was written by Fred H. Chaffin, Examiner of the Bureau of the Mint, in his temporary role as Acting Director. R. W. Woolley had tendered his resignation July 15 to assume his new position as Director of Publicity for the Democratic National Committee, a decision which was likely made easier for him by the frustrating situation with the new coins. Chaffin filled in until the new Director arrived in late August. Though officially no longer the Director, Woolley was still a resident of the Washington, DC area and maintained a keen interest in the new coinage, writing to Superintendent Joyce on August 15 in reference to “an alteration of the designs of the ten cent piece.”
Joyce received further instructions that same day from Mary M. O’Reilly, Assistant to the Director. She occasionally alternated with Chaffin as Acting Director after Woolley’s departure, an unusual level of responsibility afforded to a woman for that time. O’Reilly’s letter to Joyce read:
Please consider the instructions of the Secretary, to-wit; – “The fault to which he referred in the stamping should be corrected” to cover whatever adjustment of the design is necessary to accomplish the correction necessary.
The exact nature of the problem was not described, as the issue of shallow lettering had already been corrected by Weinman. The problems to which Woolley and O’Reilly alluded, as well as other concerns of a purely mechanical nature, delayed production of the ten-cent piece for some months more. The same was true of Weinman’s half dollar, as well as MacNeil’s quarter dollar, both of which were even more troublesome than the dime.
“there is no further doubt as to the satisfactory conditions of the respective dies”
Fred Chaffin wrote to Weinman on August 25, authorizing him to come to Washington to confer with the Director about the dime dies. This is the first reference to the new incoming Mint Director, F. J. H. von Engelken, whose Senate confirmation had become effective on the 17th but who would not report for duty officially until the beginning of September. The meeting between Weinman and von Engelken must have been fruitful, as Acting Director Chaffin wrote to Adam Joyce on the 29th with important instructions:
This letter will be considered authority for you to discontinue the coinage of dimes of the type now in circulation, and to proceed with the execution of dimes from the new designs. Will you please forward to this Bureau the first ten coins issued for the regular stock, which, it is understood you will strike on the 30th instant.
On that same day Chaffin informed Denver Mint Superintendent Thomas Annear that five pairs of dies for the new dime had been shipped, adding, “You will please prepare to operate your mint to capacity, including overtime, on dimes exclusively, beginning the coinage of that denomination on the morning of September 5th, and continuing until further advised.” A similar telegram was sent to T. W. H. Shanahan, Superintendent of the San Francisco Mint, advising him of a die shipment that day and instructing him to commence production of the new dimes on the 5th and to continue until further notice.
Yet another letter dated August 29 was sent by Acting Director Chaffin to Adam Joyce at the Philadelphia Mint ordering him to destroy all “experimental coins” [patterns] and to obtain the return of same from the sculptors, “as there is no further doubt as to the satisfactory conditions of the respective dies.”
If one were to terminate the correspondence trail at this point, it would seem that nothing more was required but to let the presses run. Unfortunately, as had happened so many times in that year of 1916, yet another delay ensued. On August 29, the very same day that all the final arrangements had been made to commence mass production of the new dime, Director von Engelken wrote to Adolph Weinman authorizing him to come to the Philadelphia Mint to discuss coin dies with Superintendent Joyce. It seems there was a problem, after all.
A clue to the nature of the problem may be found in a letter from Chaffin to Joyce directing him to send ten of the new dimes for testing purposes to Clarence W. Hobbs, Treasurer of the American Sales Machine Company in Worcester, Massachusetts. His company manufactured coin operated vending machines, so Hobbs naturally took alarm at the suggestion of changes to the existing coinage.
Invoking the name of Mr. Hobbs was enough to send chills down the spine of any Mint officer. Four years earlier his repeated condemnation of the proposed Indian Head/Buffalo Nickel had nearly scuttled the project. No amount of compromise on the part of the Mint or of sculptor James Earle Fraser in modifying the design to Hobbs’ requirements seemed to be sufficient. At one point an exasperated Mint Director George E. Roberts had declared with respect to Fraser’s magnificent models, “we can better pay him and throw his work away than adopt it if to do so is contrary to sound public policy.”
About the same time, Director von Engelken likewise instructed Adam Joyce to send ten examples of the new dime to George K. Thompson of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in New York City. With its vast network of public telephones, AT&T’s need for compatibility between the old dime and the new one is obvious.*
Evidently the recipients of these test coins were not pleased with what they saw. On September 5, the very day that the two western mints were to begin mass production of the new Winged Head Liberty Dime, Acting Director Chaffin sent telegrams to Superintendents Annear in Denver and Shanahan in San Francisco instructing, “IF YOU HAVE STARTED USING NEW DIME DIES DISCONTINUE IMMEDIATELY UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE”
Caught with its pants down, the U. S. Mint had no choice but to once again resume coinage of Barber’s Liberty Head Dime. “Please forward without delay five pairs of dime dies of the old design to Denver and to SF Mint,” was the order from Director von Engelken to Superintendent Joyce in Philadelphia. The Director’s embarrassment was compounded by a newspaper article in which Joyce was quoted about the new dime. Von Engelken wrote to him that same day, September 6, instructing that no Mint officers were to talk to the press about any of the three new coins until their problems were overcome. Given that this was his first week on the job, F. J. H. von Engelken must have been having second thoughts about the U. S. Mint as a career move.
Shortly afterward the Director wrote to Denver Mint Superintendent Thomas Annear to advise him of the old type dime dies shipped west on the 6th and instructing him not to use them unless so directed. As we now know, Denver did not coin any dimes of the Barber type in 1916, its production of this denomination being limited to a mere 264,000 “Mercury” Dimes. Just days later, on the 14th, Annear was directed to return the dies of the new type dime, as by now it was evident that further changes were needed. A similar letter was sent to Shanahan in San Francisco.
From the available correspondence it appears that the problem lay in the dime’s overall relief. Responding to a request from the Treasury Secretary McAdoo, on September 7 von Engelken reported that it would take six to eight months for Chief Engraver Barber to make duplicate models of his own sculpting replicating those submitted by Weinman in the highest relief possible within Mint requirements. He further reported that, since this time frame was not acceptable, changes had been made by Barber in the width of the rim on Weinman’s model to retain the high relief desired. Finally, the Director advised that, if this change were approved by the Secretary, dies could be ready in three weeks that would meet vending machine requirements.
The high relief of Weinman’s models was evidently in response to earlier complaints that the design, particularly the lettering, was too shallow (Judd pattern variety 1981). It’s likely that the high relief edition the vending machine people found objectionable was J-1984, the rarest of the four known varieties. Nearly identical to the coin as issued, it differs mostly in that the entire design occupies a greater area of the coin’s disc. As a consequence the border is narrow, which evidently resulted in a raised wire rim that caused the coin to fail in the tests conducted by Hobbs and AT&T. An unknown quantity of these pieces was mass produced between the onset of coining at the Philadelphia Mint, August 30, and the day on which production was halted there, September 5. As these coins had not yet left the mint, it was a simple enough matter to have them all destroyed, though at least one survives.
While cataloged as a pattern, J-1984 is thus more correctly labeled as an issue intended for circulation but withheld from release. In this respect it is akin to the lone example known of the 1922 silver dollar having a relief higher than that of the common 1922 issue but lower than that of the very rare, high-relief proofs. How exactly the remaining pattern dimes of 1916 (J- 1982 and J-1983) fit into the timeline is purely speculative, though they seemingly date between the end of June and the middle of August, 1916.
Another objection to the new dime raised by Hobbs was a familiar one to Philadelphia Mint officials who had been on duty in 1912-13, as the same issue had been brought up with respect to Fraser’s nickel. This concerned the distance between the peripheral lettering and the coin’s borders. Hobbs had written to Congressman F. L. Fishback in Wa s h i n g t o n , DC requesting that a gap be p r o v i d e d between all lettering and the borders to facilitate the proper functioning of the detection device within his vending machines. This letter made its way to Director von Engelken, who then forwarded a copy of it to Superintendent Joyce in Philadelphia. That same day, September 8, the Director wrote to Joyce again, instructing him to make the requested changes if possible to do so, as Hobbs’ company provided vending machines to the U. S. Post Office, and he didn’t want that agency to be troubled by some oversight at his own.
“Treasurer Advises will Order One Hundred Thousand Dollars New Dimes”
The months of September and October were ones of great anxiety within the Bureau of the Mint, as it grappled with both the problems in the new coin designs and an increasingly unacceptable shortage of dimes and quarters in the channels of commerce. Reflective of the confused situation are a pair of letters sent from Acting Director Chaffin to Superintend Joyce. The first, dated September 16, instructs him to send ten pairs of dime dies and four die collars to the San Francisco Mint. Just a few days later, he writes again to clarify that the dies to be sent are those of the old type dime. That it was necessary to make such distinctions underscores the day-today uncertainty.
Secretary McAdoo opted to approve the dime models as revised slightly by Barber. These revisions evidently were limited to a slight, overall reduction of the design’s scale, an increase in the space between the lettering and the rims and an a t t e n d a n t broadening of the rims for conformance with the older dimes. Director von Engelken wrote to Superintendent Joyce on October 6th advising him of the Secretary’s approval and authorizing him to prepare working dies from the revised hubs. His letter was initialed by McAdoo, as well, so that there would be no doubt as to the order’s finality.
A second letter from von Engelken to Joyce was sent that same day requesting of the Superintendent, “Will you please cause to be prepared and forwarded to the Mint at Denver and to the Mint at San Francisco, ten (10) pairs of dime dies of new design.” Still another letter instructed Joyce to send ten each of the Philadelphia Mint dimes from the new dies to the American Sales Machine Company and the American Telephone and Telegraph Company for testing purposes. These were to replace the test specimens of earlier dies which had already been returned by them.
Nothing further was heard from Hobbs or AT&T, and so it appeared that all was good to go with the new dime. On October 13 von Engelken wrote to Superintendent Shanahan in San Francisco to advise him that dies of the new type dime had been shipped there that same day. He further instructed him to continue coining dimes of the old type until the current demand was met, after which time San Francisco could commence coinage of the new dimes. These, however, were not to be issued until so authorized by him.
Superintendent Annear at the Denver Mint was likewise advised that ten pairs of dies for the new dime were on their way west, but he was given the unique admonition that, “The dies are not to be used until specific instructions are sent to you.” The reason for this was quickly revealed, as von Engelken sent him another letter that same day of the 14th: “Arrange quickly as possible to coin quarter-dollars exclusively until further notified. In this connection please advise me whether you can to advantage, if it becomes necessary, coin quarter dollars and dimes at the same time…”
The urgency of producing more quarter dollars for the region serviced by the Denver Mint did not abate for the remainder of the year, though this situation emerged only slowly amid panicky reports from the United States sub- Treasuries (precursors of the federal reserve banks). In a confusion of instructions, Acting Director Fred H. Chaffin wrote to Superintendent Annear on the 31st ordering him to, “Discontinue coinage of twenty-five cents when you reach $500,000,” and telling him to produce only minor coins (cents and nickels) after that until further notice. Less than three weeks later, Chaffin again wrote to Denver informing Annear that the need for quarters has been raised to at least $1,000,000!
Here then is an explanation for the very small mintage of dimes at Denver in 1916. Exactly when the 264,000 1916-D dimes were coined is not certain, but this figure could have been achieved in just a single day with multiple presses at work. On October 19 von Engelken instructed Joyce to send the Denver Mint 18 dime collars–twelve for large presses and six for smaller presses.54 Most of these must have been held over for 1917, given the very small number of dimes struck there in 1916.
That same day the Director authorized Superintendent Joyce to discontinue coining of the old type dime on or after October 30. In a separate letter, San Francisco was instructed to discontinue their production immediately. Von Engelken telegrammed Superintendent Shanahan in San Francisco, “TREASURER ADVISES WILL ORDER ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS NEW DIMES SHIPPED BY YOU TWENTY-FOURTH TO REACH DESTINATION BY THIRTIETH FOR DISTRIBUTION. WILL YOU HAVE THEM.” It was particularly urgent that the San Francisco Mint be able to produce sufficient numbers of dimes before the anticipated release date, as Denver would not be able to provide its share. Indeed, in a letter to Thomas Annear informing him of the October 30 release date, von Engelken further advised him that San Francisco would be shipping new dimes to the Denver Mint for distribution in that region of the country!
The Director informed Adam Joyce that the Treasurer’s office would be asking for at least $150,000 in new dimes to be delivered to the sub-Treasuries on the 28th for distribution two days later. Fred H. Chaffin wrote to von Engelken on the 28th to apprise him of developments:
The plan as outlined on the new dime has been followed to the letter with two exceptions. San Francisco has been able to furnish $35,000. more than was called for, and Philadelphia $40,000. more than the $150,000 originally promised. Under present conditions, Philadelphia can coin $30,000. per day in dimes, which, of course, is in addition to the heavy minor coinage. San Francisco is producing $10,000. per day in addition to her regular coinage of minor.
The issuance of the new dimes went as planned. Shipments to the sub-Treasuries were made by October 28, and the coins were on hand at the nation’s commercial banks for release on the 30th. With but a few exceptions, the Winged Head Liberty Dime was met with great enthusiasm by the press and public. Even a successful coin design, however, will have its detractors among the lunatic fringe, and the new dime was no exception. On November 3 Assistant Treasury Secretary William P. Malburn responded to a letter from a Mr. Henri Gerard of New York City by saying, “The Department is unable to understand your statement that the United States is speculating in coins.” Gerard may have found objection with Weinman’s prominent monogram, as had happened with Victor D. Brenner’s initials on the cent in 1909, or he may have just believed that there was no reason to alter the existing dime.
Although further modifications of a very minor nature were to occur during the next two years, the coin was deemed a success both technically and aesthetically. The changes made to the obverse of the dime during 1917 and 1918 were so slight as to go largely unnoticed even by numismatists (see “Design Modifications” in Chapter 2).
Though he was no longer Mint Director by the time it was published, it was the responsibility of R. W. Woolley to prepare the Mint’s annual report to Treasury Secretary McAdoo for Fiscal Year 1916. In it Woolley chose to crow a bit regarding the adoption of new coinage designs:
By far the most notable achievement of the mint service during the fiscal year 1916 was the selection, with your approval, of new designs for the dime, quarter-dollar, and half-dollar pieces. For the first time in the history of our coinage there are separate designs for each of the three denominations, and their beauty and quality, from a numismatic standpoint, have been highly praised by all having expert knowledge of such matters to whom they have been shown.
The process of selecting the new designs (authority under sec. 3510 of the U.S. Rev. Stats., approved Sept. 26, 1890) began in January last, when, with your permission, I conferred with the members of the Commission of Fine Arts. Noted sculptors were commissioned to prepare a number of sketch models, and from more than 50 submitted 3 sets were chosen. It is a pleasure to note that the models which you and I selected were also the choice of the members of the Commission of Fine Arts.
The Director’s Report for 1916 includes a photo plate illustrating the three new fractional silver coins adopted that year, as well as the McKinley Birthplace Memorial Gold Dollar issued as a commemorative coin. Oddly enough, the illustration for the Winged Head Liberty Dime is actually a photograph of pattern coin J- 1982. Whether this oversight was noticed by Woolley or anyone else in the Mint Bureau at the time is not known.
“We have in the new United States dime . . . the handsomest American coin”
In numismatic circles the progress of the new coinage was followed with much anticipation. The Mint’s press release of March 3, 1916 had been large on hoopla and a bit shy on facts. As it became apparent that the announced date of introduction for the new designs would not be met, numismatists began speculating and philosophizing as a means of coping with the frustrating delays. Their dislike of the Barber silver coins then in use is apparent in the following statements by Frank G. Duffield, editor of The Numismatist:
We are not betraying a secret when we say that the type adopted in 1892 has not been popular with latter-day collectors…
In the past 25 years great improvement has been made in the coinage of many foreign countries, and collectors have been patiently waiting for the time limit of our present type to expire, and hoping that the new designs will compare favorably with or even surpass those of some other countries, and will be so beautiful that nothing but necessity will compel us to part with them once they come into our possession…
On May 30 the Mint issued another release announcing the winners of the competition and relating some general features of the designs. About the ten-cent piece is was said, “The design of the dime is simple. Liberty with a winged cap is shown on the obverse and on the reverse is a design of a bundle of rods, and a battle ax, symbolic of unity, ‘Wherein Lies the Nation’s Strength.’”
The New York Sun observed that, “Not the design on the coins, but the number of them in the pocket, is the matter of gravest concern to all but numismatists…” The newspaper went on to note that, “The Treasury will confer a new series of dimes, quarters and half dollars on us this summer, regardless of the storm that broke over the revisers of the gold pieces.” The growing sense of anticipation among the press and general public even led to false sightings:
Notwithstanding a press dispatch dated Washington, July 1, that the new silver coins had made their appearance in Washington and were in circulation there, it may be stated that none had been issued or even struck up to the middle of July…
During the first two weeks of July operations at the Philadelphia Mint were suspended for the annual stock-taking and settlement. It is possible that the coinage of dimes of the new design may begin with the resumption of operations, and that this denomination may be in circulation by the time this issue of THE NUMISMATIST is printed. The coinage of the quarters and half dollars may not begin until fall.
Further glum reports appeared in the numismatic press in September, as the long watch continued. Editor Duffield related, “It is reported that the model for the new design of the dime, which was not quite satisfactory, has been worked over and important changes and improvements made, and that the dies for these are now being cut.”
The picture did not brighten in the fall, as an announcement was made that the new coins had been postponed indefinitely. This delay was attributed to technical difficulties arising from the employment of outside artists. The source of this blow aimed at Weinman and MacNeil was not named, but it may be assumed that Barber was speaking into the ear of anyone who would listen to him.
It was not until December that readers of The Numismatist learned of the new dime’s release:
The new silver dime was given to the public during the last days of October, and by the time this issue reaches its readers it will be in general circulation. For five months collectors have been anxiously waiting to get a glimpse of what we were told was to be a beautiful coin, and we have not been disappointed.
The opinion of a single man, whether he be artist, sculptor, numismatist or layman, as to its merits or the beauty of the design, should not weigh heavily, but when a number of men familiar with the coinages of the world from the earliest times all pronounce it a very creditable piece of work and perhaps the most attractive coin this Government has ever put in circulation, its popularity with collectors cannot be a matter of doubt.
In that same issue’s monthly message to the readers, Editor Duffield captured the upbeat mood of collectors, who were nearly unanimous in their praise of Weinman’s work:
The girlish Miss Liberty with wings on her cap has already won a place in the numismatist’s heart. Of course, dimes are only bits of change in this busy old world, and no one expects to keep them in his pocket for any length of time. They come to us quickly, and go from us even more quickly, without the aid of wings; but this is not an objection to the new coin; those of the old type were equally active in their flights in both directions. The dime has always been a good friend to man, woman and child; it opens many doors to pleasure and amusement. The new one will be fully as good a friend, and a bit of art to admire as well.
The often opinionated but seldom complimentary coin dealer Thomas Elder found favor with the new design, stating, “We have in the new United States dime, designed by Adolph Alexander Weinman, the handsomest American coin.”
Adolph Weinman was clearly pleased with the results of his work and had been eager to display his models publicly for some time. He had written to the Treasury Department on August 23, 1916 requesting permission to display them in an upcoming art exhibition. The Acting Treasury Secretary, whose name is not readable in the letter, responded to Weinman informing him that he may not display his models because they are the sole property of the government once they are accepted. One week later Director von Engelken acquiesced to Weinman’s request that photographs of his models be published in numismatic journals, but only after the coins had been issued.
Both the Philadelphia and San Francisco Mints coined fairly large quantities of the new dimes during the final months of 1916. Director von Engelken wrote to Superintendent Shanahan in San Francisco November 3 inquiring when the Treasurer’s request for new dimes would be delivered, as the demand was quite heavy. Perhaps the delay was due to problems in striking the coins. There was clearly some issue taken with the quality of dimes being struck at San Francisco and, on October 27, Acting Director Chaffin had written to Shanahan requesting 50 new dimes for inspection. These were examined by the Philadelphia Mint’s staff, and a report was prepared evaluating the ‘S’ Mint dimes. This report was sent to Shanahan on November 15, along with samples of a 1916(P) dime and a milled planchet.
Though this report has evidently not survived, some idea as to its content may be gleaned by examining 1916-S “Mercury” Dimes. Typically, these coins are weakly struck in the lower diagonal band of the fasces, as well as displaying the weakness at the center horizontal bands common to many dimes of this type. It’s likely that the purpose of enclosing a milled planchet was to show the coiners at San Francisco how a press-ready planchet for this coin type should look. A milled planchet is one that has been run through the upsetting mill, a machine which forms a raised rim on the blank so that it will strike up better during coining. The demonstration must have been an instructive one, since the ‘S’ Mint dimes of 1917 and later years no longer have the weakness in the lower diagonal band so often seen on 1916-S pieces.
In 1917, and for the next several years, many millions of the new Winged Head Liberty Dimes were struck for circulation. Within its first decade the new type had largely supplanted the Liberty Head design of Charles Barber in general circulation, though the older coins continued to circulate in ever smaller numbers as late as the 1950s. For much of that time, Barber’s dime was known to collectors as the “Morgan” Dime, due to its superficial resemblance to George T. Morgan’s silver dollar of 1878-1921. Barber himself did not live to witness this indignity, as he died suddenly on February 18, 1917.* This erroneous nomenclature was ultimately corrected, but not before Barber’s Liberty Head had vanished from circulation.
In an ironic twist, Weinman’s Winged Head Liberty had by then become known almost exclusively as the “Mercury” Dime. 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. All efforts to restore its original title have met with little success, collectors evidently favoring the misattribution for purely sentimental reasons.
Behind the enormous output of dimes and other fractional silver coins during the years 1916-20 lay largely hidden a serious threat to the nation’s economy. The international price of silver bullion was rising steadily during this period and had driven silver coins from circulation in most of the world by 1918. The Great War, as World War I was then known, was largely responsible for this speculation in silver, though other pressures were likewise put to bear. The insatiable demand for silver in the Asian market had already prompted Congress to order the melting of hundreds of millions of silver dollars for transport to India as silver bullion. This was the infamous Pittman Act of 1918, an attempt to control the ruinous speculation that was occurring there and endangering the stability of our British ally’s most important colony. It proved to have precious little effect, and the price of silver continued to rise, peaking in the early months of 1920 at a level well above the point at which it was profitable to ship silver dollars overseas as mere commodity items. Writing to The Numismatist, San Francisco correspondent Farran Zerbe related this alarming development:
The San Francisco Mint has paid as high as $1.36 per ounce for silver in recent days, the highest Government purchase price record, and local sales for commercial purposes are reported as high as $1.40.
When it became more profitable to use silver dollars than to purchase bullion, silver dollars, so long as obtainable, left San Francisco by the million during the late weeks of 1919 (for export across the Pacific) with an expected average price, delivered, of $1.07 per dollar and the promised profit of $55,000 per million pieces after the payment of transportation and insurance.
Except on demand in exchange for Silver Certificates, no silver dollars are now obtainable at the Treasury, and Silver Certificates have been withdrawn from circulation.”
Since United States dimes, quarters and halves were subsidiary coins, containing less silver than in an equivalent face value in silver dollars, the threat to the fractional pieces was not as immediate. While the loss of silver dollars was not a serious matter to everyday commerce, given that they circulated only in the western states, the potential loss of the many millions of fractional silver coins then in circulation posed the ominous specter of economic paralysis. Their place would have to be taken by base-metal replacements or, even worse, fractional paper currency. This is just what had happened amid the last such crisis during the dark days of America’s Civil War.
Legislation was introduced early in 1920 for the reduction of the silver content in both the dollar and its fractions, a step about to be effected by Britain and Canada and one already completed by Mexico. Before any such bill was passed, however, the price of silver began to recede, ending the crisis. Amazingly, the average American took little note of this threatening episode, and there were no documented incidents of fractional silver coins being hoarded or melted.
The coinage of dimes was greatly curtailed during 1921 and suspended altogether during 1922, as the worldwide economy hit a postwar slump. The Mint took advantage of this brief but severe economic recession to direct its efforts toward recoining the silver dollars destroyed under the Pittman Act. Having achieved most of this recoinage by the middle of 1923, the Mint resumed its production of fractional silver pieces. With only a few exceptions, mintage figures for the dime remained fairly substantial throughout the 1920s. Coinage slowed in 1930 and 1931 and was suspended completely during 1932-33, as the effects of the worldwide Great Depression reduced the demand for fresh coins. Much of the mintage from this period was released only after a delay of several years. This accounts for the greater than expected availability of dates such as 1930-S and 1931-D in Uncirculated condition, despite their being scarce in lower grades. Many pieces were saved in rolls by eager collectors and speculators.
When prosperity began to return in 1934, the demand for additional coinage was renewed. Mintage figures are high for this and all subsequent years through 1945, the final date of the Winged Head Liberty type.
The death of popular President Franklin D. Roosevelt in April of 1945 led to a call for a circulating commemorative with his portrait. As the late president had been a major proponent of the March of Dimes Campaign to combat polio, selection of the dime as the coin to bear his likeness was assured. This news was disappointing to a small group of individuals who had for some years been promoting the coinage of a Benjamin Franklin Dime. In fact, preliminary models for such a coin had already been prepared by the U. S. Mint’s Chief Engraver, John R. Sinnock. The work was temporarily shelved, until being revived for adoption on the half dollar. Sinnock’s death in 1947 was only a brief setback, as his successor, Gilroy Roberts, prepared the final models for the Franklin Half Dollar. This coin was introduced the following year.
The Roosevelt Dime was released to circulation on January 30, 1946, the 64th anniversary of the late president’s birth. Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross gave the following eulogy for the Mercury Dime:
The winged Liberty Head dimes now outstanding will continue to circulate, but no more will be minted. The first ten-cent coins bearing the pattern created thirty years ago by Adolph A. Weinman, were struck in 1916. As of late December 1945, when the last of the Liberty dimes passed through the presses, the Mint had put out a total of 2,677,232,488 of these coins.
Mercury Dimes remained a familiar sight through the mid-1960s. Only the introduction of copper-nickel-clad coins in 1965 and the subsequent hoarding of all silver coins by the general public led to their complete disappearance from circulation. The author recalls them fondly, having begun his collecting experience around that same time. The high mintage issues from 1940 through 1945 could then still be found in circulation, but older pieces had already vanished into collections. As these collections and hoards are dispersed, the coins await discovery by successive generations of coin enthusiasts for whom the finding of a Mercury Dime in pocket change is merely a romantic dream.
*Dewey was the U. S. Mint’s Assayer, but he was serving temporarily as Acting Director. The former Director, George E. Roberts, had left office the previous November, and his replacement had not yet reported.
*USA pattern and trial coins are attributed to the standard reference by Dr. J. Hewitt Judd, now in its eighth edition.
*At that time many home telephones operated by coin, too. Instead of a monthly bill, residential customers would receive periodic visits from telephone company employees who emptied the coin box.
*In The Annual Report of the Director of the Mint for Fiscal Year 1917 the month is given as January, but the February date is believed to be correct.