In 1916 the dime, quarter and half dollar were each eligible for a new design, and the Treasury department held a competition to select the winning motifs. Designs submitted for the dime and half dollar by German-born sculptor Adolph Weinman were selected. They became his most well-known legacy: the Mercury dime and Walking Liberty half dollar, although he also created many works of art, especially large monumental sculptures found around the U.S.
Mercury dime design
Weiman’s dime remains the most popular coin of its denomination and one of the most widely collected 20th century series. Its obverse design features a left-facing profile of Lady Liberty wearing a winged cap, which symbolized liberty of thought. The design is believed to be a composite image based party on a bust the artist made of Elsie Katchel Stevens and one of Weinman’s most famous monuments – the Union Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in Baltimore that includes a sculpture of allegorical Victory with a head and cap that strongly resemble those on the coin.
This design was immediately popular with numismatists but was soon mistaken by many as being an image of the Roman god Mercury – god of trade and commerce, which it could not be since all U.S. coins at the time were required to feature a depiction of Miss Liberty on their obverse.
The confusion arose in large part because the winged cap looks similar to the petasos worn in ancient Greece, including by the god Hermes, counterpart to the Roman god Mercury. But the Mercury name stuck, though most numismatists prefer to call it the Winged Liberty of Liberty Head dime.
The reverse design depicts fasces, which is an ax tied to a bundle of rods, surrounded by an olive branch. Fasces had its origins in Etruscan and Greek civilization and were later carried by Roman bodyguards as symbols of power and authority. It was coopted by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini as a symbol of fascism.
But Weinman’s fasces was intended as a symbol of unity, as he explained in a 1916 letter to editor of The Numismatist. He added that the battle ax stood for preparedness to defend the Union, while the branch of olive symbolized our country’s love of peace.
Mercury dimes are generally divided between the early dates (1916-1931) and the later dates (1934-1945). No dimes were issued during the depths of the Depression, 1932-33, since there was less need for coinage then. The later dates are mostly common even in uncirculated condition and can be found in rolls even today.
The early coins were not saved the way the later dates were. Although the design was a hit with collectors, attention to them faded quickly after about a year. This had a lot to do with the fact that there were no folders or albums to display the coins until the 1930s, when there was a big jump in interest in the series and demand for the coins.
Mintages rose sharply during WWII, and the 1941-45 coins of that period are a very popular subset with collectors.
How much is a Mercury dime worth?
These coins contain .07234 ounces of silver, which gives them an intrinsic value of about $2 at today’s silver prices. In circulated condition any Mercury dime sells for about a dollar over its silver value, or about $3. Rolls are readily available average circulated or better condition
Uncirculated examples of common dates (MS60) are worth about $6-8 retail, while MS65 coins bring $25 and the top grade of MS68 are worth $200.
When it comes to BU examples, it is not just the grade but also how well defined the bands on the faces of the reverse are that is key to their value. Flatness on the middle of the bands and the sticks of the faces are common. Coins with sharpness in those details are known as Full Band (FB) coins, which are scarcer and more valuable. For this reason, it is important to study these details on the coins.
For example, a complete set with all dates and min tmarks runs $30,924 in MS63 and $61,638 in MS65. But the same complete set with each coin having FB jumps to $64,701 in MS63 and $304,416 in MS65! For comparison, a full set in XF40 is only about $8,000.
1939-S Mercury dime
Looking at a coin such as the 1939-S dime shows how widely the value can vary for the best BU coins and especially FB coins. Over 10 million of these were struck, but PCGS estimates that only 20,000 exist today. An MS63 without FB runs $30 and a top grade MS68 $775, but with FB in the same condition it is $75 and a whopping $12,500!
1942 Mercury dime
1942 is one of the most common coins of the series with the second highest mintage after 1944 (205 million struck). But even for this date look at the gap between an MS65 coin at $25 and a top grade without FB of $600, and with FB prices jump to respectively $50 and $6000. Yet an MS67FB is only $265, showing how much difference a point can make.
1945 Mercury dime
Or take the 1945 coin, which is plentiful up to MS67 but jumps to $2500 in the top grade of MS68. And with FB in MS65 it runs $16,000 and an amazing $47,500 in MS67FB and even more with a plus grade!
Mercury dime key dates
The 1916-D is the series key with the lowest mintage at 264,000 of which 10,000 are estimated to have survived, and 8,746 have been graded by PCGS. Yet only 100 mint state coins are believed to exist with 65 graded by PCGS.
This coin is rare in all dates and is one of the greatest 20th century U.S. coins, and it tends to come well struck. Even in just Good 4 it is worth $750, while an MS63 is worth $15,000 and MS65 $27,000. With FB it is $18,500 in MS63 and an amazing $120,000 in MS67. In 2020 a record $207,000 was paid for an MS67FB.
Two other key dates are 1921 and 1926-S. About 1.2 million were struck, but today there are far fewer coins left. PCGS has graded 2,386 1921 coins. In XF it runs $450 but jumps to $1850 in MS63 and $4,000 in MS65. In MS67FB (with 4 graded by PCGS) it is worth $30,000.
As for 1926-S, 1.5 million were made. Any Mercury dimes with mintages below 2 million are semi-key coins. This date is more valuable in mint state than circulated condition with XF40 running $250 but MS63 reaching $2,000. With FB the two coins PCGS has given the top grade of MS67 command $55,000. Only about 1,000 in all grades have been graded by PCGS.
Most valuable Mercury dimes
In addition to the key dates and certain condition rarities, the most valuable Mercury dimes are primarily the variety coins. A full set including the major varieties runs a little under $10,000 in XF40, but the same set with FB in the top grade of MS67 is an impressive $750,000!
The most well-known varieties are the 1942/41 overdates struck at either the Philadelphia or Denver Mints. These coins were the result of inexperienced personnel and imperfect dies used to create 1941 and 1942 hubs, according to Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross in a 1946 letter. They were made during WWII when production had been ramped up from tens of millions of dimes to 175 and 205 million in 1941 and 1942, which created a high-pressure environment at the Mint. The Philadelphia version is easier to spot and rarer.
For both versions of this popular overdate/double die, circulated coins are not hard to locate and run about $600 in XF. But mint state coins are very scarce with only about 3,400 and 1,600 graded respectively at PCGS for the Philly and Denver versions. Values in MS63 are $4,750 and $7,500 respectively. The top graded coins are MS66FB and MS67FB which run $85,000 and $120,000.