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