History of the Mercury Dime
In 1792, the first United States coinage act was passed, which allowed for the production of a "disme" coin, now known as a dime. The proposal for a decimal based coinage system was brought about by the collaborative efforts of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Per the 1792 legislation, the disme was to be equivalent to one-tenth of a silver dollar. President Washington appointed David Rittenhouse as the first director of the Mint to supervise production of coinage for the new nation.
When the first dimes were minted in 1796, they were composed of approximately 89% silver and 11% copper, and they were slightly larger than they are today. Over time, dimes had to be made smaller so that their silver value would remain less than their face value; as a result, the dimes were reduced from their previous size of 18.9 millimeters in diameter to their current size of 17.9 millimeters. In 1965, a coinage act removed all the silver from dimes, to be replaced by copper-nickel alloy.
In 1916, the old Liberty Head or Barber design of the three silver coins, which had been in place since 1892, needed an update. The Barber dimes, quarters, and halves were nearly identical in design, and the public found them rather blasé. Per a law passed in 1890, coin designs had to remain in place for 25 years before they could be changed. By 1916, the public and the Treasury Department officials agreed it was time for a change in coinage designs.
Like they did with the Barber coinage, the United States Treasury held a contest, open to sculptors, to submit their ideas for the design of the new dime, quarter, and half dollar coins. The designs of prominent sculptor Adolph A. Weinman were selected for the dime and half dollar. It is widely believed that Weinman used Elsie Stevens, wife of the lawyer and poet Wallace Stevens, for his model. His dime design depicted a young Lady Liberty, wearing a winged Phrygian cap. The dime was formerly known as Winged Liberty Head in the Treasury Department. The design of the Lady Liberty with a winged cap was mistaken by the public for the Roman messenger god Mercury, and thus the nickname “Mercury dime” was given to the new dime.
The reverse side of the dime shows fasces, which represent strength and unity, and an olive branch, which stands for peace. The fasces is a symbol of power and authority that goes back to the ancient Etruscans who pre-dated the Romans on the Italian peninsula. The Mercury dime was minted until 1945 when the Treasury ordered a new design that featured the recently deceased President Franklin Roosevelt on the obverse.
Rarities of the Series
The Mercury dime series is like most series of U.S. coins in that there are a few dates that stand out as being rare and sell for a large premium over the common date coins. The rarest of all the Mercury Dimes is the 1916-D (Denver mint). Only 264,000 of these were minted. The value of these coins is worth anywhere from $800 in Good condition to $22,000 in choice mint state condition!
Other scarce dates to look for are the 1921, worth $1,850 in Choice BU condition, and the 1921-D, worth up to $1,975 in Choice BU or MS63 condition. In Good condition, both the 1921 and 1921-D dime can be purchased for around $50.00. The 1926-S is another tougher date to find and sells for around $1500 in MS63 condition. A 1926-S in Good condition can be found for less than $20.00. It is always advisable to purchase expensive high grade rare coins, from a reputable dealer, that have been professionally graded and encapsulated by one of the grading services like: ANACS, PCGS, NCG, or ICG.
Varieties of the Series
Probably the rarest and hardest to find die varieties of the series are the 1942, 42 over 41, and the 1942-D, 42 over 41. The 1942/1 overdate was made by taking a 1941 working die and over punching it with a master die, resulting in a 1942 dated dime with traces of 1941 under it. Both Philadelphia and Denver minted coins are worth hundreds of dollars in circulated condition and thousands of dollars in uncirculated condition. As with any rare coin, counterfeits exist, and it is best to purchase a professionally graded and encapsulated coin to guarantee the coin is genuine and properly graded.
Some other die varieties of the series include: 1941-S with a small S and the 1941-S with a large S; 1943-S with Trumpet Tail mintmark; 1945-D with D over horizontal D; 1945-S with S over horizontal S; and the 1945-S with a micro-S mintmark. The 1945-S micro-S dime typically sells for around $70 in MS65 condition, whereas the 1945-S with a normal mintmark is worth $17 in the same condition.
Dimes With Full Split Bands
Not all Mercury dimes struck at one of the mint facilities are created equal. Some were struck with maximum pressure on the minting press, and the features of the coins were fully developed. If the minting press wasn’t quite up to par that day, then the coins came out of the press without all of the details showing. Collectors are willing to pay a premium for coins that are fully struck and show all the details of the design.
The way collectors determine if the coin is fully struck is by examination of the horizontal bands of the fasces on the reverse side. All three horizontal bands must be clearly defined (split) and rounded before a dime can be designated with full split bands. The central band being split is the more important of the three bands that are required to be split and fully formed.
Some dates of the Mercury dime more commonly feature Full Split Bands (FSB), such as the 1940, 1943-D, 1944-D, 1945-D, as well as others. In some of the dates, FSB details are very rare. Take, for example, the common date 1945 dime. The 1945 is rarely found in choice brilliant uncirculated condition with full split bands. Expect to pay nearly $8000 for a 1945 MS64FB dime. The coin must be graded and encapsulated by a professional service to fetch this lofty price. A 1945 MS64 without full bands can be purchased for around $20.00. Not all dates exhibit such a dramatic difference between the coin with full bands and one without.
A Brief Description of the Coin Grading System
Since the value of a coin greatly depends on the state of wear of the coin, knowing how to grade is important. The coin grading system is broken down into a series of abbreviations (AG, G, VG, F, VF, EF or XF, AU, and BU) that represent the state of wear exhibited by the coin. In addition to the letter designators for the grade, a number can be appended to the abbreviation; for example, EF-45. The numbers represent a system developed with 0 being a coin in the worst shape, and a coin with a 70 grade being nearly perfect. The uncirculated grades start at BU-60 or MS-60, which represents a brilliant uncirculated coin (BU) in mint state 60 condition—no trace of wear.
Back to the example of the coin that grades EF-45. This coin would be a split grade coin since the EF grade starts at 40 and goes until 49. At 50 the grade goes to almost uncirculated AU-50. When the grade of EF-45 or XF-45 is assigned to a coin, it is called a choice EF coin since it is too nice to be strictly an EF coin but does not have enough detail for the next grade up, an almost uncirculated coin (AU).
Tips for Grading Mercury Dimes
Since the Mercury dime is a small diameter coin, it is often helpful to use a low power magnifying glass (5X, 7X, or 10X) to examine the coin. The high points on Liberty’s face, condition of the rim, and the condition of the fasces on the reverse are key points that help determine the grade. The following is a brief description of what to look for when grading a Mercury dime:
- About Good (AG-3): Parts of the date and the legend are worn smooth. Date and mint mark are readable. The rim is worn halfway into the legend. This is normally the lowest grade at which Mercury dimes are collectible.
- Good (G4 or G-6): The coin will show heavy wear overall. Legend and date are readable but faint. Liberty's face shows a basic shape, but little detail. The fasces will be well worn or nearly flat.
- Very Good (VG8): The coin is still well worn, but the word "LIBERTY" is separate from the edge, and the letters on the back are also separate from the rim. Rim is complete. Some vertical lines will still be visible on the fasces.
- Fine (F12): The coin will have moderate wear over the whole of the surface. Some of Liberty's hair and feathers are visible but lack distinction. Diagonal bands are visible but faint in places on the fasces.
- Very Fine (VF-20 Typical or VF-30 Choice): The coin shows minimal wear. Most of the details of Lady Liberty are discernible. Three quarters of the wing details are present. Wear shows on the diagonal bands of the fasces, but most detail is visible.
- Extra Fine (EF-40 Typical or EF-45 Choice): The coin will have sharp details and some of the luster. All details will be crisp, but the higher points of the coin will how slight wear. Traces of mint luster may be present.
- Almost Uncirculated (AU-50 Typical, AU-55 Choice, and AU-58 Very Choice): The coin shows some wear with small traces visible on the high points of hair above forehead, cheek, and the diagonal bands on the fasces on the reverse. Most of the original mint luster will be present unless the coin is toned or tarnished.
Fully uncirculated dimes (MS-60 to MS-70) are problematic to grade for the beginner. Find a good dealer to help you learn to grade these high-grade coins. Note the abbreviation BU is commonly used in place of MS on uncirculated. There are many nuances to this area of grading, and a mistake can cost the beginner a lot of money and heartache.
Three Good Books to Help You With Collecting, Grading, and Valuations of U.S. Coins
There are three good books that every collector of U.S. coins, including Mercury dimes, should own. They are:
1. The current edition of A Guide Book of United States Coins, normally called the Red Book by collectors. This book goes into the detail by date, mint mark, and grade for every U.S. coin, including the Mercury dime. For example, in the 2022 edition, the retail price of the 1938 dime in F-12 condition is $2.75, in MS-63 $15, and PR-65 $300. Coin prices change with market conditions, but this book is a good place to start. Note that pricing for Mercury dimes with Full Split Bands on the reverse are not covered in the Red Book.
2. The second book is Grading Standards for United States Coins, the official grading guide of the American Numismatic Association. This book covers the grading standards for U.S. coins from half cents to $20 gold coins. It has many detailed pictures and explanations that allow even a beginner to come with an approximate grade.
3. Like the Grading Standards for United States Coins by the American Numismatic Association, the book Making the Grade by Coin World covers the basics on grading U.S. coins. However, this book goes into more detail about grading uncirculated coins and gives more reference material on certain dates in a series that may have weak strikes or other problems. For example, in the section on Mercury dimes, the book states: “The greatest challenge in grading Winged Liberty Head dimes is being able to distinguish weak strike from wear”—good advice.
Proof Mercury Dimes
The Philadelphia Mint issued specially made Mercury dimes from 1936 to 1942 for coin collectors, called proof coins. The term proof refers to the method of manufacture of the coin and not the grade of the coin (many people get this point confused). Regular-production coins in mint state condition (uncirculated) often have minor imperfections due to handling during the minting process. Extra care is taken in the production of proof coins, and they are made with highly polished dies to produce sharp detail. Proof dimes exhibit high wire edges, sharp design detail, and extremely brilliant and mirror-like surfaces. All the proof dimes were sold by the mint for a premium over their face value and were not intended for general circulation.
Since the mintage on the proof Mercury dimes is very low, they sell for anywhere from a hundred dollars in lower grades (PR 60 to 63) up to $1,000 for a PR-65 1936 dime.
How to Calculate the Silver Value of a Mercury Dime
Mercury dimes are made from an alloy of silver and copper. The copper is added to make the coin more resistant to wear, allowing them to circulate for many years. Each dime contains 0.07234 Troy ounces of pure silver. To calculate the silver value of the dime, take the Spot price of silver (you can find this on the internet or in the newspaper) and multiply 0.07234 times that spot price to obtain the value of the silver in the coin. For example, if the spot price of silver is $25.00 per Troy ounce, then 0.07234 x $25.00 = $1.81. This is the value of the silver in the coin.
If you want to sell your circulated Mercury dimes to a coin dealer, expect them to pay a little less than the silver value for common date and grade coins. Rarer dates, coins in high grade, die varieties, and proof coins command a substantial premium over the silver content.
2016-W Gold Mercury Dime
In 2016, the United States Mint issued a gold Mercury dime to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the minting of the coin. The coin is made from 9999 fine gold and has a weight of 3.11 grams, making it 1/10 of an ounce of gold. With a mintage of only 124,885, they sell for considerably more than their gold content. Expect to pay around $125 to $175 over the gold value, for example.
Specifications of the Silver Mercury Dime (1916 to 1945)
Weight: 2.50 grams. Composition: 0.900 silver and 0.100 copper by weight. Actual silver content: 0.0723 Troy ounces. Diameter: 17.9 mm with reeded edges. Minted in Philadelphia (no mint mark), Denver (D), and San Francisco (S). The mint mark is on the bottom left of the fasces.
- Bowers, Q. David. A Guide Book of Mercury Dimes, Standing Liberty Quarters, and Liberty Walking Half Dollars. Atlanta: Whitman Publishing, LLC, 2015.
- Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins. New York: Doubleday, 1988.
- Deisher, Beth. Coin World’s Making the Grade: Comprehensive Grading Guide for U.S. Coins. Third Edition. Sidney, Ohio: Amos Hobby Publishing, 2012.
- Garrett, Jeff (Senior Editor). A Guide Book of United States Coins 2022 R.S. Yeoman. 75th Edition. Pelham: Whitman Publishing, LLC, 2021.
- West, Doug. Coinage of the United States: A Short History. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2015.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2022 Doug West