The Mercury Head dime was created in 1916. At the time, the general public was unhappy with the coin designs in circulation. They had been struck since 1892 and were designed by Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber. They featured the same obverse for the half dollar, quarter, and dime denominations, which was considered ugly.
Barber has designed the quarter, dime, and half dollar in response to a failed design competition. The competition, which took place in 1892, was created to replace the Seated Liberty coinage that had been struck since 1830. The Mint had initially invited specific artists to take part in the competition, but the rewards for the winning designs were so small that none of the artists accepted the invitation. The competition then became open to the public, but the judges found no suitable designs. Mint Director Edward Leech then assigned Barber to create the new designs. The public was immediately dissatisfied with the designs.
Only two years before the creation of the Barber designs, in 1890, a law had been enacted that stated that changes could not be made to a coin design without approval from congress more frequently than every 25 years. Since the coins’ designs had been created in 1892, the year 1916 was the Mint’s first opportunity to create a new design, which they took.
In April of 1915, the new Mint Director, Robert W. Woolley asked Barber to create new designs. The goal of the Mint was to have a distinct design for each coin. At the time all of the Barber coins were almost identical. After looking over Barber’s new designs, Woolley and the Commission of Fine Arts decided that they didn’t like any of them and asked three sculptors to submit designs instead: Adolph A. Wienman, Albin Polasek, and Hermon A, MacNeil.
Hermon A. MacNeil was a sculptor from Massachusetts. He was greatly inspired by Native Americans and had created several important works based on them. He graduated from Massachusetts Normal Art School and became a teacher of industrial art at Cornell University. After spending a few years as a pupil in France, MacNeil returned to America to compete in and win several important competitions.
Born in modern-day Czech Republic, Albin Polasek immigrated to the US when he was 22. After being a wood carver in Vienna, Polasek decided to begin formal art training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. After winning various awards for his works, Polasek was invited to head the sculpture department of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he stayed for almost 30 years.
Adolph A. Weinman was born in Germany and immigrated to the US with his family at the age of 14. At only 15, he studied at the Art Students League of New York. He served as an assistant to several artists before opening his own studio in 1904. Later in life, he served on the US Commission of Fine Arts and was the president of the National Sculpture Society.
Once the artists submitted their designs, they met with Woolley in New York to discuss them. Originally, Weinman’s designs for the whole dime, the whole half dollar, and the reverse of the quarter and MacNeil’s design for the obverse of the quarter were selected, but members of the Commission of Fine Arts convinced Woolley that it was too much work for Weinman. Ultimately, Weinman was selected to design the whole dime and whole half dollar. MacNeil was selected to the design the whole quarter. None of Polasek’s designs were selected.
After being informed that his new designs were not selected and that Weinman’s and MacNeil’s designs would be used instead, Mint Engraver Charles E. Barber became uncooperative. He was not interested in assisting the artists tasked with replacing his own designs. He was known to throw obstacles in the sculptors’ way and to give harsh criticism. The public’s celebration of new coinage did not improve Barber’s attitude.
In the early stages of creating the models for the dime and half dollar, Weinman visited the Mint to discuss turning models into finished dies. The first time he visited, Barber was not there and Weinman met with Barber’s assistant George T. Morgan. When he returned the second time, he had a less-than-pleasant interaction with Barber. He later told Woolley about the interaction. Woolley then wrote to Superintendent Joyce about the sculptor’s experience with Barber, citing artistic temperaments as the problem.
Weinman’s Mercury dime was released on October 30, 1916, the same day that production of the Barber dimes ended. While the design received some criticism in the newspapers, the Mint was more than satisfied with the design and even complimented Weinman. The public loved the new coinage, particularly the Mercury dime. Since the coin didn’t have an official name, a Minneapolis newspaper dubbed it the “battle ax” and “golf” dime due to the design on the reverse of the coin. A letter to the editor in the January 1917 issue of The Numismatist appears to be the first reference to the coin by the nickname of “Mercury”.
Weinman himself had never revealed who the model for the Mercury dime was, nor had anyone ever come forward to claim to have been her. However, the wing-capped woman is believed lawyer and insurance salesman Wallace Stevens’ wife, Elsie Stevens. Wallace and Elsie had rented an apartment from Weinman in 1906 for seven years and Weinman had actually sculpted a bust of Elsie. In an unpublished draft of his autobiography, Woolley stated that Weinman refused to name the model, but revealed that she was the wife of a lawyer that lived above his apartment in New York. While Woolley’s statement was later removed from the book, Holly, Wallace and Elsie’s daughter, noted in her father’s letters that Elsie had been the model for Weinman’s both dime and quarter in 1966.
The Mercury dime depicts Liberty with a winged Liberty cap. The public likened the model wearing a winged cap to the Roman god Mercury, the god of merchants. However, Weinman wrote that the winged cap symbolized the “liberty of thought.” It has also been suggested that he chose a winged cap simply because he liked the look of feathers on the relief. This use of feathers was also common with sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who was one of Weinman’s teachers.
Chief Engraver Barber died on February 18, 1917. He had served 37 years in office. He was succeeded by George T. Morgan, who was 72 at the time. Morgan had served under Barber for his entire career.
Weinman’s Mercury dime continued to be struck until President Franklin Roosevelt’s death in April of 1945. After Roosevelt’s death, there was an immediate call for a coin to be issued with his image on it. Since the Mercury dime had been struck for over 25 years, it was selected to be the design replaced. Mint Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock, Morgan’s successor, was tasked with creating the new Roosevelt design. It replaced the Mercury dime in 1946.