Although the dime is an essential part of the decimal coinage system, it was one of the last coins issued by the United States Mint when operations first began. By the time it made its debut in 1796, as the Draped Bust/Small Eagle dime, the Mint had already been making copper cents and half cents for three years; silver dollars, half dollars and half dimes for two years; and even two gold coins—the eagle and half eagle—for a year. The only other coins delayed, like the dime, until 1796, were the quarter dollar and quarter eagle.
It’s not as though the dime was an afterthought. Actually, Thomas Jefferson had called for such a coin as far back as 1783 as part of a proposed decimal system. He was joined in his advocacy by Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and the man who would become the first mint director, eminent scientist David Rittenhouse. The decimal system was gradually gaining acceptance for use with calculations, but it had not yet been used for any nation’s monetary structure. The founding fathers believed that not only was decimal coinage an efficient, workable method for commerce, but it also symbolized a break from the Old World.
Hamilton, the nation’s first treasury secretary, bolstered this view in 1791 in his formal report to Congress, outlining a plan for a national mint and coinage. He recommended the issuance of coins in six denominations—including a silver piece “which shall be, in weight and value, one tenth part of a silver unit or dollar.” He suggested that the dollar be called the “unit,” with its tenth part being known as simply a “tenth.”
These names never took hold, but the basic Mint Act of April 2, 1792, did include provision for both a silver dollar and a coin one-tenth thereof to be called a “disme.” The term disme—pronounced the same as “dime” and later anglicized to be spelled the same—is French for “decimal.” It first gained wide usage in 1585 when Dutch mathematician Simon Stevin published a pamphlet (later translated into French, and then into English) as Disme: the art of tenths, or, Decimal arithmetic.
The word “disme” never appeared on a regular-issue United States coin. But in 1792, before the start of official federal coinage, about 1,500 half dismes and a handful of dismes were struck bearing the statement of value in this now strange-seeming phraseology. Although these are authorized U.S. issues, they are generally regarded as patterns or provisional pieces. Only three 1792 dismes are known today in silver—with about fifteen others struck in copper.
After that tentative start, four years would pass before the Mint produced the first ten-cent coins intended for circulation. The dime (or disme) remained on the back burner. The dollar, perceived as the most prestigious coin of the new silver issues, was made first. Then, when production problems forced the Mint to stop making dollars, it turned instead to half dollars and half dimes.
Why no dimes? Numismatic researcher R.W. Julian largely attributes the delay to lack of public demand for this small silver coin, whether from merchants and their customers or from bullion depositors. Commercial needs were met adequately by the large numbers of Spanish reales then in circulation: The one-real coin, worth one “bit.” or 12-1/2 cents, provided a convenient and readily available means to pay for small purchases. Meanwhile, depositors who left silver bullion with the Mint seeking silver coinage in return, much preferred large coins—especially silver dollars—to small ones like the dime.
By the time that production of dimes finally began the Mint had already modified the original designs of the other silver coins, so the dime denomination missed an entire cycle. The first regular issue silver coins had featured the so-called Flowing Hair portrait of Miss Liberty, but by 1796 this likeness had given way to a more sedate Draped Bust portrait—and that’s the one that appeared on the very first dimes.
The Draped Bust/Small Eagle design by Mint Chief Engraver Robert Scot features a buxom portrait of Liberty, her flowing hair tied by a ribbon and her neckline covered with drapery, encircled by stars at the sides. The inscription LIBERTY appears above and the date below. The reverse depicts a small, spread-winged eagle perched upon clouds and surrounded by palm and olive branches. Encircling this is the motto UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The coin carries no statement of value—curiously, the Mint Act of 1792 required that only the copper cent and half-cent be inscribed with denominations.
Pieces dated 1796 have fifteen stars—one for each state in the Union then. In 1797 some dimes were struck with sixteen stars (reflecting Tennessee’s admission as the 16th state) and some with thirteen, symbolizing the thirteen original states. Such dies were prepared after the Mint abandoned the idea of adding an extra star for each new state.
Legend has it that Liberty’s portrait was based on a drawing of Philadelphia socialite Ann Willing Bingham, one of the most beautiful women of her time. The drawing was prepared by portraitist Gilbert Stuart—reportedly at the urging of President George Washington himself, who felt the early coins were in need of artistic improvement. Stuart’s sketch was translated to plaster by artist John Eckstein, and the dies were then executed by Scot.
This first regular issue dime was minted for only two years. In 1798 the small, naturalistic eagle gave way to a larger heraldic version, creating a brand new type. During this brief run, the Mint produced a total of 47,396 pieces. Although Mint records show a slightly higher output in 1797, the late Walter Breen, a noted numismatic scholar, speculated that some dimes made in 1797 may have been dated 1796. Dimes dated 1797 are rarer across the grade spectrum than the first-year pieces, and particularly so in Mint State.
At least several dozen uncirculated 1796s exist—a few with prooflike surfaces, possibly made as presentation pieces for VIPs. The famed collector, Colonel E.H.R. Green, son of “The Witch of Wall Street,” fabulously wealthy Hetty Green, possessed a small hoard of uncirculated 1796s, all of which were dispersed after his death in 1936.
There are only three basic varieties in the series: the 1796, the 1797 with sixteen stars and the 1797 with thirteen stars. Thus, some collectors pursue complete sets, despite the high cost of each component. Many, however, treat this as a type coin and acquire just one specimen to represent the series. When grading this design, wear will first show on Liberty’s bust, shoulder and the hair above the ear and at the forehead. On the reverse, check the eagle’s head and wing tops.
At the end of the 18th century the United States of America was just beginning to grow. Vermont achieved statehood in 1791, followed by Kentucky the next year. The western frontier was still in the eastern half of the continent, stretching from Alabama to the Ohio Valley, but that would change dramatically in the coming decade with the addition of the vast Louisiana Territory. Population growth continued to explode, fueled in part by a flood of European immigrants fleeing the Napoleonic Wars. By 1796 another territory—Tennessee—had enough permanent residents to be admitted to the Union as the sixteenth state.
Carrying on the tradition of recognizing each new state, the United States Mint’s chief engraver, Robert Scot, added a sixteenth star to the coinage dies. But it didn’t take long for Mint Director Elias Boudinot to realize that, as the country grew, this practice would soon get out of hand. He ordered the number of stars reduced to a more manageable thirteen, symbolizing the original colonies. While only a slight adjustment, it demonstrated just how concerned Mint officials were about the appearance of the nation’s coins at the time. The new edict served a practical purpose as well, for fewer stars meant fewer die punchings, as each device was placed separately into the dies by hand.
Mint employees had been under a lot of pressure since the very beginning. Congress considered abandoning the idea of a federal mint even before it opened. There were always quality problems, both in design and execution. After the 1793 Chain cent was so severely criticized, officials became extremely sensitive to public opinion. They quickly realized that the new nation’s coins must not only be of proper weight and fineness but must also look as solid and respectable as their European counterparts. To that end, Scot began to rework the coinage designs.
There were limitations, however, as to how much of an improvement could be accomplished. After all, Scot’s talents as an engraver and die-sinker were modest at best, and it was his designs that were receiving much of the criticism in the first place. But a facelift was in the cards, and as chief engraver, it was Scot’s show.
His Draped Bust/Small Eagle dimes, first introduced in 1796, were based on a drawing by noted portraitist Gilbert Stuart. The coin featured a draped bust of Liberty flanked by thirteen stars—six right, seven left. Although somewhat crude and certainly unfashionable by today’s standards, the matronly bust was well suited to contemporary tastes: It was supposedly modeled after Mrs. William Bingham, a socialite who was considered the most beautiful and charming woman in Philadelphia. The reverse of the coin, however, was another matter. Its scrawny, hatchling eagle was widely disliked. In 1798 Scot replaced the small eagle with the scaled down version of the Great Seal of the United States that was first seen on the gold quarter eagle of 1796. This depicted a heraldic eagle with the Union Shield on its breast and a ribbon inscribed E PLURIBUS UNUM in its beak. Judging from the lack of negative comment, this new Draped Bust/Heraldic Eagle combination obviously came closer than the previous design to satisfying the objections of critics.
All dimes of this type were struck at the Philadelphia Mint. Eight years are represented in the series (no dimes were made bearing the dates 1799 or 1806), with production totaling only 422,010 pieces. The most plentiful dates, accounting for more than 65% of the total mintage, are the last two, 1805 and 1807. The rarest issues are the 1798 with thirteen-star reverse and the low mintage 1804.
Even though it was short-lived, the series has many varieties, an inherent problem of issues produced with the relatively crude technology of the Mint’s early years. Major and minor design variations include overdates, differing sized date punches, thirteen- and sixteen-star reverses and four- and five-berry reverses. Curiously, Yeoman’s Guide Book lists fourteen date and variety combinations, Breen’s Encyclopedia lists seventeen and the bible of avid dime variety collectors, Early United States Dimes 1796-1837, lists twenty-one. So, depending on your aspirations, it’s possible to have a “complete” set of Draped Bust/Heraldic Eagle dimes with anywhere from eight pieces (one for each year issued) to twenty-one pieces (the number of varieties recognized by advanced specialists).
Generally, variety devotees and date collectors pursue coins in VF to XF grade, while type collectors seek pieces grading AU or better. Mint state specimens are quite rare, but examples dated 1805 or 1807 are available with some frequency.
An explanation is in order for the rare 13 star variety of 1798. It seems that economy took precedence over all other considerations during this time. Even though thirteen stars had been mandated in 1797, before the Heraldic Eagle reverse appeared on the dime, unworn 16 star reverse dies from the 1797 quarter eagle were used for the bulk of 1798 dime production. With less than a millimeter difference in the size of the two coins, the two dies were interchangeable, and serviceable quarter eagle reverse dies would be used to strike dimes in several years.
Grading this design can be especially challenging. Striking details are often weak or non-existent in certain areas, particularly for the 1807 issue. This weakness in strike can make a high grade (XF or better) coin appear to have more wear than it actually does, in which case the coin’s grade must be determined by the amount of remaining mint luster. Wear first shows on Liberty’s hair above the ear and at the forehead. On the reverse, the high points are the shield, head, tail and top edges of the wings.
There are some readily identifiable lightweight counterfeits dated 1800, but counterfeits are not a particular problem with this series. Ironically though, it was the issue of counterfeiting that would ultimately lead to the demise of the design. Mint officials were continually striving for uniformity among coins as a means to discourage counterfeiting. With engraver John Reich’s arrival at the Mint in 1807, more progress was made in that direction. Reich succeeded in reducing the number of individual operations needed for each working die. The Heraldic design required between 34 and 37 design elements to be added by hand. With Reich’s new Capped Bust design introduced in 1809, the number dropped to 24, an obvious savings in labor. In addition, the coins were more uniform, therefore harder to counterfeit successfully. Production was greatly increased, as a quick glance at the mintages for the Capped Bust series will show.
Coin Descriptions Provided by Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC)(Less Text)
Although the dime is an essential part of the decimal coinage system, it was one of the last coins issued by the United States Mint when operations first began. By the time it made its debut in 1796, as the Draped Bust/Small Eagle dime, the Mint had already been making copper cents and half cents for three years; silver dollars, half dollars and half dimes for two years; and even two gold coins—the eagle and half eagle&mdas...(Expand Text)