• The Winged Liberty Head or ‘Mercury’ Dime

        The Winged Liberty Head or ‘Mercury’ Dime
        Frank J. Colletti

        March 15, 2011 

        The Barber dime had been in production for nearly 25 years and it was deemed that a change was long overdue. The general consensus was that the designs as created by Charles Barber was not artistic, and generally, in fact, possibly downright ugly.
        The dime’s design was changed in 1916 at the instigation of Theodore Roosevelt, who greatly admired the coinage of the ancient Greeks and could not understand why we could not produce coins of that same quality and character. Roosevelt was correct in believing that we could produce classically beautiful coins and ordered that a design competition be commenced. Some of our most beautiful coin designs were created as a direct result of his intervention.

        The Winged Liberty design, the "Mercury Dime" as it is commonly known, is actually the design of "Winged Liberty." As you may know, Mercury, the Roman god of speed, had wings on his feet, to suggest speed. This Liberty design has wings on her helmet (sometimes called a cap), and represents winged thought, or freedom of thought. The name Mercury is, therefore, wrong, but has stuck around since it was first released, and is even used (in quotes) in the Guide Book of United States Coins (also known as the Redbook) by R. S. Yeoman.

        Charles Barber was the Chief Engraver at the Unites States mint at the time, but most critics considered him a hack, and his designs of very poor quality. It would take many years before any appreciation of his designs would attract the collecting community. In the interim, Augustus Weinman’s design was selected in the coinage design competition. His initials, AW, may be seen to the right of the neck of Liberty on the obverse. I have read that some people thought that the initials were an error and saved them when they were first produced. This has happened before and since, with rumors that the Treasury was going to recall the pieces and replace them. Naturally, this rumor was completely unfounded. Thankfully, this error in judgement has provided us with many high grade early examples of this first year of production.

        Many collectors feel that the Winged Liberty design is one of the most beautiful that our country has ever produced. True, but the beauty of the design can only be truly appreciated in high grade examples, and every collector should own a few later dated uncirculated coins. These beautiful coins can be purchased for as little as $3 in uncirculated, to about $25 in gem uncirculated. There are very few coins that can compare to these uncirculated beauties. Consider a coin that is over sixty years old, a work of art, and you may obtain one for less than the cost of a Big Mac.

        The obverse design of ‘Winged Liberty’ is beautiful, but what about the reverse? Here in a simplified design, we can view the Roman fasces that was traditionally carried by Roman magistrates as a symbol of their power. The historical symbol for readiness for war, the fasces is balanced my being encircled by an olive branch. The central device shows our country’s willingness to go to war but our basic desire for peace. Remember, this was 1916 and all of Europe was at war, with the United States about to be dragged into the conflict the very next year. Many times symbolism must be reviewed within the context of time. Now, let’s examine the series of coins that spanned the years 1916 until the end of World War II in 1945.

        There are not many dates that have been overlooked in this very popular series, but there is certainly room for growth in value. Over the course of the last two years there have been a number of dates that have greatly increased in value. The semi-key dates of 1921 (Philadelphia) and 1921 D (Denver) are two of my favorites. With a mintage of 1,230,000 and 1,080,000, respectively, they are two of the lower production dates. At current values of $60 and $100 in very good condition, they seem to be good buys at this time.

        Two dates that I think are very undervalued are the 1917 D and 1919 D. Both have mintages slightly under 10 million pieces, but are valued at just $6.00 and $7.00 in very good condition. It was not long ago that I could pull pieces from ‘junk silver’ of both dates, as a matter of fact, on one occasion I had the opportunity to pull 21 1917 D in almost good and 23 others in good condition from one large bag of junk silver. At the time, no one cared and I accumulated them for the price of just junk silver. Today the good condition pieces trend at $4.50 each.

        Until recently the 1930 P (mintage 6,770,000) and the 1930 S (mintage 1,834,000) along with the 1931 P (mintage 3,150,000) and the 1931 S (1,800,000) were all considered just junk silver dates. It is only in the last two years that these dates have been recognized as worth a premium. These were a few better dates that I was also able to accumulated from junk silver. Today they are on several dealers’ buying lists and are worth a nice premium over silver melt. In fact, most of the series’ dates are now traded at a slight premium over silver melt. Consider what other gems may be hidden in those rolls of coins that you have stored away.

        Also of interest especially to variety collectors, there are two overdates in the series: the 1942/1 (Philadelphia) and the 1942/1 from Denver. Apparently during the war years there was a shortage of help in the mint, and there are a number of these overdates available for collectors. Certainly not cheap, they start at $625 and $675 in fine condition, but this is more than double their values from a few years ago and triple their $210 and $225 values of 1989.

        There was a recent event that really made my day, make that my collecting year. I had the opportunity to examine a bag of $136 in Winged Liberty dimes, the deal was that I could keep anything that I wanted, in exchange for arranging a buyer for the other coins. In that bag I found a 1921 D dime in almost good condition, worth about $25 and (after a bit of eyestrain) thought that I had found a 1942/1 Denver overdate. I have just gotten the coin back from a certification service, and it has been slabbed as authentic and received an extremely fine grade. The current book value of the coin is $1,100! Nice catch. I say this just to prove that you can still find good coins, and sometimes you just have to be lucky. Realize, though, that this is one event that occurred after years of examining thousands of dimes, sadly, the above experience does not happen more frequently.

        So, carefully check your 1942 dimes and preserve your coins carefully. Just as an afterthought, remember to never clean your coins. If you clean a coin you will greatly reduce its value. Sure, those that you have dug [for you metal detecting
        afficionados] may be cleaned, since no one wants a pound of dirt on a coin, but do so carefully. Good luck and good hunting.

        Images Courtesy of Archaeo