Every Coin Tells a Story
Pull a coin out of your pocket or purse, and there is a story in your hand, sometimes full of human drama and deep meaning, or sometimes a little bland and trite. For example, the United States Jefferson nickel, which has been in circulation since 1938, tells a story, maybe not one of deep symbolism or allegory, but nevertheless a story. On the obverse (front) of the coin is a portrait of Thomas Jefferson, a former president and founding father of America. On the reverse (back) is an image of his home in Virginia called Monticello—a rather straightforward story.
The United States Mercury dime, issued in 1916, tells a story full of history, symbolism, and mythology. Some have interpreted the images on the coin as an allegory to the great struggle facing the county in 1916. America was at a crossroads on the international scene: war raged in Europe, and the people of America were at odds over just how much direct involvement was required in the Great War—should the country send its young men to fight and die in a European war? The opposing images on the reverse, the olive branch of peace surrounding an ancient symbol of power, the fasces, show the choices the nation faced.
Whatever one’s interpretation of the hidden meanings of the images on the Mercury dime, there is a story to be told.
Design Competition for the Mercury Dime
By the end of 1915, the United States mint officials and the public had grown tired of the liberty head designs on the Barber dime, quarter, and half dollar coins. Per the law enacted in 1890, 25 years had elapsed since the introduction of the Barber coins, allowing the Treasury to open a contest for the designs of new dime, quarter, and half-dollar coins. The prize money in the contest was sufficient to attract the nation’s top artists and brought in 50 entries.
In early March 1916, Mint director Robert W. Woolley announced that Adolph A. Weinman’s dime and half-dollar designs won the design competition. Weinman was a German-born American sculptor of the first rank who had already made a name for himself by the time of the contest. The quarter-dollar design prize went to Hermon A. MacNeil for the Standing Liberty quarter.
The Mercury Dime Design
Weinman’s design featured on the obverse a young woman wearing a cap with wings on her head. On the reverse, the dime had a bundle of sticks with an axe blade all tied together with straps, making the ancient symbol of a fasces, which was surrounded by an olive branch. An excerpt from the 1916 Mint director’s report gives his impression of the design features of the coin:
“The design of the dime, owing to the smallness of the coin, has been held quite simple. The obverse shows a head of Liberty with a winged cap. The head is firm and simple in form, the profile forceful. The reverse shows a design of the bundle of rods, with battle-ax, known as ‘Fasces,’ and symbolical of unity, wherein lies the Nation’s strength. Surrounding the fasces is a full-foliaged branch of olive, symbolic of peace.”
The editor of The Numismatist wrote to Weinman to learn more about his design concept, and Weinman responded:
“In response to your letter of November 14, requesting a word of explanation as to my reasons for selecting a winged female head for the design of the obverse, and the fasces for the reverse of the new dime…The wings crowning her cap are intended to symbolize liberty of thought … I have selected the motif of the fasces and olive branch to symbolize the strength which lies in unity, while the battle-ax stands for preparedness to defend the Union. The branch of olive is symbolic of our love of peace.”
Possible Sources of Design Inspiration for the Mercury Dime
Today, numismatists believe the obverse design was derived from two sources. The first being the 1912-1913 portrait bust of Elsie Steven, wife of the lawyer Wallace Stevens. The couple rented an apartment in the same building as Weinman’s studio, and the artist had completed a bust of the young women at her husband’s request.
A more likely source of inspiration for the design of the figure on the obverse comes from a statue titled “The Union Soldiers and Sailors Monument” sculpted by Weinman in Baltimore, Maryland. The statue in Wyman Park commemorated the Union military personnel of the American Civil War. The figural group shows Bellona, the ancient Roman goddess of war, and the personification of the goddess Victory together with a citizen-soldier. Behind Bellona there is a fig tree. The head of Victory in the statue bears a striking resemblance to the bust on the dime.
Though Weinman’s inspiration for the head of Liberty on the Mercury dime is not known, it is common for artists to use composite figures in their allegorical works. The Lincoln cent, which began issuance in 1909, was the first regular issue United States coin to depict the bust of an actual person.
The Public’s Mistaken Association with the God Mercury
When the new dime went into circulation in October 1916, it was well received by the public. The prominent collector and former president of the American Numismatic Association, Farran Zerbe, stated simply, “I am delighted with the new dime.” In general, the “Winged Liberty Head,” as it was dubbed by officials at the Treasury Department, was quickly nicknamed the “Mercury” dime by collectors and dealers.
The public had mistakenly made the association with Lady Liberty’s cap to that of a winged version of the classic hat from antiquity, known as a petasos, which was commonly seen in art depicting the Roman messenger-god Mercury.
Though Weinman had intended the image on the obverse to signify “liberty of thought,” the design had taken on a life of its own. Though the Roman god Mercury, or Hermes to the Greeks, was a male, the design similarity was striking. Mercury had been depicted for centuries in art and on ancient coins with a winged cap.
Though Weinman had associated the fasces with “preparedness to defend the Union,” the ancient meaning of the symbol was a bit darker. In ancient Rome, the fasces were made from a bundle of elm or birchwood sticks about five feet long, a single-headed axe, all bound together by straps. The tradition of the use of fasces in government was borrowed from the Etruscans, who pre-dated the Romans on the central Italian peninsula.
In Roman society, a magistrate would be accompanied by several attendants (lictors) carrying fasces. This represented a visible expression of the life-or-death authority of the magistrates. During the Republican period (roughly 509 to 27 BC), the highest magistrate, the dictator, was entitled to 24 lictors and fasces, the consuls to twelve, the proconsul to 11, and so on down the administrative ladder. The fasces were regarded during the Republican period as instruments of execution. The consuls normally removed the axe from the fasces when they were in the city, symbolizing a citizen’s right to appeal the decision of a magistrate.
Olive Branch of Peace
The olive branch as a symbol of peace is, like the fasces, a symbol that goes back to antiquity. In Christianity, a fourth-century AD father of the Christian church, Saint Augustine of Hippo, in his book On Christian Doctrine, makes the connection of the olive branch to a symbol of peace. He wrote, “And the only reason why we find it easy to understand that perpetual peace is indicated by the olive branch which the dove brought with it when it returned to the ark, is that we know both that the smooth touch of olive oil is not easily spoiled by a fluid of another kind, and that the tree itself is an evergreen” (Book II, Chapter 16.24).
Saint Augustine was referring to the story of the great flood from the book of Genesis in the Bible, where Noah sent out the dove to see if the waters had receded from the earth. From Chapter 8, verses 10 and 11, “He [Noah] waited seven days more and again sent the dove out from the ark. In the evening, the dove came back to him, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! So Noah knew that the waters had lessened on the earth.”
In addition to the Christian tradition of adopting the olive branch as a symbol of peace, the ancient Greeks and Romans also make the association. Numerous ancient coins and pieces of art show the olive branch being used as a symbol of peace.
The Great Seal of the United States
Centuries later, the association of the olive branch with peace was not forgotten by the founding fathers of the United States. In 1776 they formed a committee in the Continental Congress to develop a seal of the United States. However, it was six years before the design of the seal was finalized. After multiple congressional committee attempts to design the seal of the fledgling new nation, the long-time secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson, submitted his design to Congress.
Thomson’s design incorporated many of the features that had been proposed in the past. In the summer of 1782, Congress approved Thomson’s version of the Seal of the United States, which featured an eagle clutching an olive branch in the right talon and a bundle of arrows in the left, symbolizing war. Thomson remained the keeper of the seal until the federal government was formed in 1789.
At that time, President George Washington asked Thomson to deliver the seal to the Department of Foreign Affairs to be kept until the Department of State was created. Since then, the Great Seal of the United States, with its olive branch, has gone through design revisions but is still in use today.
America in 1916
While war raged in Europe during what was called the Great War and what we now call World War I, America in 1916 was enjoying a period of relative prosperity. The European countries involved in the war, France, Russia, and Britain (primary Allied Powers), and Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy (primary Central Powers), all needed supplies to execute the war, and America had geared up to supply their needs. However, the United States was divided; there were those who wanted to keep the country out of the war, including President Woodrow Wilson, while others felt it was the duty of the country to enter the war on the side of the Allies.
President Wilson won a second term in the election of 1916 using the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Events changed rapidly in 1917 when Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare on the open seas, forcing America into the conflict. America’s involvement was a key factor in forcing the collapse of the Central Powers, and by the end of 1918, the war had ground to a halt. Though peace was at hand, many European nations were in shambles, and millions were dead.
So, does the simple Mercury dime tell of a time of great conflict in the world and a decision at home or not? You be the judge.
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© 2022 Doug West