Despite its name, the Mercury Head dime does not actually depict Mercury.

First minted in 1916 and designed by Adolph Alexander Weinman, the mercury dime actually features a portrait of Lady Liberty on the obverse, wearing a winged cap. (The mythical Mercury was actually male, and had wings on his feet.) Since the resemblance was to Mercury, the name "Mercury Dime" or "Mercury Head Dime" was commonly used, and eventually stuck. The portrait of Liberty wearing the winged cap was symbolic for the freedom of thought.

Also on the obverse is the word "LIBERTY" largely spaced, arcing across the top. A stylized version of the designer's initials appear to the right of Liberty's neck, "IN GOD WE TRUST" appears on the bottom left side of the obverse, and the year appears just below Liberty's collar.

Circling the reverse are the words "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" along the top, and "ONE DIME" along the bottom. Residing in the center of the reverse is a depiction of the fasces, topped by a battle axe. An olive branch wraps around the back. "E PLURIBUS UNUM" is printed to the right.

Proofs of the Mercury Head dime were last minted in 1942, and the dime's design was retired in 1945.

United States Coinage

Money is a kind of poetry.
--Wallace Stevens

You might be thinking that, back in the days before Americans filled their pockets with ¾ of a mini-Mount Rushmore (Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington...different Roosevelt) in coin, the artists who designed new faces for small change had it easy. Carving an accurate likeness of a dead President in very low relief is a sensitive business. If you've absorbed just a little numismatic history -- from, say, "United States Coinage" -- you might be thinking that these artists were well satisfied to imagine idealized women and flattened-out cigar store Indians in the creation of the designs they submitted to the Commission on Fine Arts and the Secretary of the Treasury.

Or do I underestimate you? Perhaps you already suspect that the designers of new coinage, whether freelance or salaried employees of the United States Mint, seldom -- if ever -- relied on their imaginations for inspiration when called on to model a personification of Liberty, the emblem legally required on all coins of the United States of America. It appears that most of the women and Indians* who contributed their likenesses to old U.S. coins were real people; their names are recorded. One of them, however, is not merely an obscure name in an old Mint ledger. This woman is famous, by association, in a way that has outlasted the decades in general circulation of the coin that bears her image.

The "Mercury" Head Dime is a portrait of the young wife of a New York lawyer, based on a bust sculpted by Adolph Weinman around 1913. Sources differ on whether the artist made the bust for his own pleasure or on commission from the husband, though its eventual disposition seems to support the latter idea. The woman whose face slipped through the fingers of anyone who ever fiddled with a dime for 29 years (and more) was Mrs. Elsie Stevens, and her husband, besides becoming a (eventually) prosperous insurance executive, was Wallace Stevens, one of the truly great 20th Century poets.

Elsie Stevens's monetary association may have prefigured her husband's success, but it did little for their marriage, which was not happy. After Mr. Stevens's death in 1955, the couple's daughter, Holly, refused the original bust of Mrs. Stevens as a gift. When Mrs. Stevens died, the bust disappeared.

*Curious choices as representations of Liberty since, for most of the years they were used in this capacity, both women and Indians were disenfranchised.


Gioia, Dana. Can Poetry Matter?. St. Paul: Graywolf, 1992

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