[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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As with any new coin design, Adolph Weinman’s Winged Liberty Dime required a certain amount of trial and error before master hubs suitable for the production of dies were obtained. The story of how Weinman was compelled to repeatedly revise his models is told in Chapter 1. It’s the results of these experiments which are of interest here, as the patterns taken from each evolutionary step are of the greatest rarity and desirability.1
Unlike many earlier United States pattern coins, the dimes, quarters and halves of 1916 were struck in very small numbers. In keeping with official policy, these pieces were not made available to collectors and were not supposed to leave the Philadelphia Mint, except as needed for examination by the artists, the Director of the Mint and the Commission of Fine Arts. All coins so loaned were to be returned and destroyed as soon as they had served their intended purpose. That, at least, was the official policy, as outlined in a letter from Acting Mint Director Fred H. Chaffin to Philadelphia Mint Superintendent Adam M. Joyce, dated August 29, 1916. Chaffin instructs Joyce to destroy all “experimental coins” and have any such pieces in the hands of Weinman and his fellow sculptors returned to the Mint for that same purpose, “as there is no further doubt as to the satisfactory conditions of the respective dies.”2
As related in Chapter 1, examples of the new dime as it progressed through the trial stage were sent to the American Sales Machine Company and the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Ten each were sent to these companies for testing in their coin operated devices around September 1, 1916.3 The coins failed to operate the machines properly, evidently as a result of their narrow borders and wire rims. Ten additional dimes were sent to each company around October 6, after the defective pieces had been returned.4 The author could not locate any documentation that these revised coins were returned by their recipients, but then the fact that they proved satisfactory in all respects establishes that no further changes were made. Thus, the test coins would have been indistinguishable from the balance of the 1916 circulating issue. It seems that all recorded coins of preliminary designs had been sent back to the Philadelphia Mint for destruction.
In actual fact, a number of pieces went for a walk, as evidenced by their existence today in the hands of collectors and dealers. Several of these are worn from circulation and, in some instances, damaged. This is not too surprising, given their similarity to the adopted designs. It’s easy to imagine their being mistaken for ordinary coins and spent by unknowing individuals. In fact, this appears to have been the case. Some years ago, in his “Numismatic Depth Study” column, Q. David Bowers quoted a letter from Rogers Fred of Virginia revealing the story of how several of these 1916 patterns came to be worn:
Living in Leesburg at the present time are Mr. and Mrs. Charles Robb who are good friends of mine. Their son, Chuck, married Lynda Johnson, daughter of President Lyndon Johnson. Frances Robb (Mrs. Charles Robb Sr.) is the daughter of Mr. Wooley [sic], who was Director of the Mint in 1916… Mr. Wooley is dead now, but I knew him myself when we both lived in Washington in the 1930s and 1940s. I have talked to Frances Robb many times about her father and coins and she told me that in the 1920s her father’s home was robbed. Among the things taken was a box containing coins. The thieves were not really interested in the coins as such, but since the robbery was of a general nature they took anything that had value and could be disposed of easily. Mrs. Robb has said that her father had patterns of the 1916 coinage in that box… the 1916 patterns are very similar in design to the regular issue and it is reasonable to assume that the thieves thought that the coins were just regular issues and simply spent them. This would explain how the coins got out of the Mint in the first place, and how they got into worn condition in the second place.5
The fact that a few of the known pattern dimes of 1916 are not worn suggests that they were obtained by individuals other than Woolley and were thus not among the coins taken in the robbery of his home. Likely recipients include Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo, Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, members of the Commission of Fine Arts and, of course, Adolph Weinman. It’s possible, too, that influential numismatists such as Philadelphia coin dealer Henry Chapman may have been favored with a specimen or two. All of this is of course purely speculative, as no documentation exists to link the known pattern dimes with their original owners. The sole exception to this rule is the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, which acquired its two specimens when the U. S. Mint Collection was transmitted to the Smithsonian in 1923.
There should actually be four examples in the National Numismatic Collection, according to surviving correspondence. On June 16, 1917 Mint Director Raymond T. Baker informed Philadelphia Mint Superintendent Adam M. Joyce, “You are hereby authorized and directed to place in the Numismatic Collection of the Mint at Philadelphia, the following experimental coins from dies for the subsidiary silver coins: Three Half Dollars; four quarter-Dollars and four Dimes. The balance of the experimental pieces on hand are to be destroyed.”6 What became of the other two examples, and whether these represent varieties presently unknown to numismatics, are questions that may never be answered.
Pattern Mercury Dimes, as stated earlier, are quite similar to the adopted type in their overall arrangement. It is therefore in the details alone that they are readily distinguishable from ordinary coins, at least to a numismatist. The relative sizes and positions of the date and lettering account for the most common variations. Another tip-off may be the absence of the designer’s monogram which appears so prominently on the production coins.
These patterns are cataloged by Judd numbers, a reference to the standard work on USA pattern and trial coins originally published by J. Hewitt Judd, MD in 1959 and now in its eighth edition. These patterns are listed in their supposed order of emission, and the author agrees entirely with this sequence, as each successive pattern reveals changes alluded to in the surviving correspondence. J-1982 and J-1983 are nearly indistinguishable, the only apparent difference being that J-1983 is lacking the sprig of leaves to the right of letter E in ONE. Of the four known varieties, J-1984 is the most deceptive, as it is nearly identical to the coin as issued for circulation, excepting in its unusually high relief. It also bears Weinman’s monogram of a letter W surmounting an A, something not seen on any of the other Judd varieties.
Several Mercury Dime patterns were allegedly retrieved from circulation at various times from the 1930s onward. Specific instances have proved difficult to verify, although two examples were reportedly found circa 1955 and 1961, respectively. The latter was said to have been change from a vending machine.7