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Recently, a Mercury dime showed up in my change, practically
leaping into my palm like a trout into a canoe. What a
mini-miracle! I know it's silly to take delight in such a tiny
thing, but coming across this brightly polished disc and grasping
the sliver of silver between my fingers made my day.
It is wonderful that such an oddity, which hasn't been minted
since 1945, could surface more than six decades later—after being
tumbled through the years of common coinage—polished smooth like a
river stone. “In circulation” is the phrase used to describe a
coin's life, aptly suggesting economic blood flow. But very few
Mercury dimes continue to circulate. I hadn't seen one in years.
Every now and then I'll come across a wartime steel penny, but
Mercury dimes are increasingly rare. Made of 90 percent silver and
10 percent copper, they are now worth about 60 cents, I
A bright and shiny Mercury dime, with wing-headed Liberty on the
obverse and fasces on the reverse.
My new old dime dates to 1945, the last year the Mint made the
Mercury. The coin was introduced in 1916, during the golden age of
numismatic art in America. The popular coin collector's site
Coinresource.com declares that it “may very well be the most
beautiful coin ever produced by the United States Mint. It is truly
remarkable that a coin this small could have such an intricate and
aesthetically pleasing design.” I tend to agree.
“ Liberty Leading the People ” by Delacroix (Louvre).
The Mercury's designer was Adolph A. Weinman, a noted sculptor
of the day and a student of Augustus St. Gaudens who won the job
through a competition. Interestingly, the Mercury dime is more
properly known as the Winged Head Liberty dime, for it does not
actually show Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, at all. Rather,
Weinman's engraving is of Liberty, embodied as a young woman
wearing a Phrygian cap with wings. (In France, too, Liberty has
long been depicted as a woman, Marianne, who is also
the embodiment of the French Republic. She's been shown on the
ramparts in paintings and featured on stamps. Models for Marianne
in modern times have included celebrities such as Catherine Deneuve
in the 1980s.)
The Phrygian cap, fashioned on the dime, was once associated
with a group in Asia Minor who valued and fought for freedom. It
was worn by freed Roman slaves to signify their new status and
figured in iconography of the American and French revolutions. The
wings, however, appear to be an innovation: they are said to
symbolize freedom of thought. But wings suggest Mercury, the
messenger, a symbol used by medical associations (he was a kind of
classical EMS guy.) Mercury, or Hermes, had winged shoes and was
often depicted wearing a wide brimmed soft hat called a petasus
with wings added, presumably to match those on his footwear.
The model for Liberty is thought to have been Elsie Kachel
Stevens, the wife of poet Wallace Stevens. The couple were
Weinman's tenants in a New York brownstone. Mrs. Steven modeled for
a bust that the sculptor later used for the dime, as well as for
the face of the Walking Liberty half-dollar. (How amazing it must
have been to walk around with a pocketful of change bearing your
In The Mechanic Muse, critic Hugh Kenner describes Ezra
Pound's interest in the machinery used to stamp coins at the
Philadelphia mint, where his father had been employed as an assayer
(one who ensures the precious metal content and purity of coins).
Pound thought of the die striking the metal as a “point of
concentration,” like an image or phrase in poetry. Such boldness of
image appears on the Mercury's reverse, or “tail”: a fasces, symbol
of wartime strength as well as fascism, along with olive leaves,
juxtaposing war and peace like the arrows and olive branches in the
talons of the American eagle on the presidential
In 1946, the Mercury was replaced. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who
died the previous year, took his place on the head of the dime
that's still in circulation today. The Congressional decision to
memorialize the creator of the New Deal in this manner was a
testament to his search for a cure for polio (resulting in the
charity March of
Dimes) and carried an implicit reference to “Brother, Can You
Spare a Dime?”—the song of the Great Depression that he had
helped resolve. The dime, as luck would have it, was also the only
denomination not “taken” by another president. For FDR, it was
right on the money.
A dime was more powerful during the years the Mercury design
reigned. To quote Coinresource.com again: “Even in its final years,
this was a coin with real buying power. Armed with a Mercury dime,
youngsters in the 1940s had their choice of a 52-page comic book, a
double-dip ice cream cone, two Hershey bars or two bottles of
The Mercury speaks of its power. The head leaps out, charged
with energy of line, so the suggestions of the mercurial god are
apt. The details are crisp; Weinman even lent himself a logo, in
initials overlapped, Durer-style, in a signature. If coin
connoisseurs consider the Mercury dime one of the finest of all
American coins, its beauty struck me as a reproach to some recent
disappointing coin designs, such as many of the state quarter
series or the commemorative nickels and pennies.
Coin making has conventions and rhetoric, with message and
medium tightly linked. But the new quarters often read as
translations of printed images to metal. Take the random three I've
pulled from my pocket. The Wisconsin shows a three-quarter frontal
view of a cow and a sliced wheel of cheese, among other images. The
North Carolina is a clumsy rendition of the famous photograph of
the Wright Brothers first flight, which took place on the state's
coast, with unconvincing waves or dunes. The Mississippi offers a
magnolia—the state flower—recalling the term “steel magnolia,” or a
flower without softness, color or fragrance.
State quarters (from left): Wisconsin; North Carolina;
One of the Jefferson nickels released to commemorate the
bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase offers a casual “off center”
portrait of Jefferson that suggests the die missed the slug—it
seems to be a coinage misprint or misstrike.
The new designs for pennies to honor the 200th birthday of
Abraham Lincoln were released in September with the imprimatur of
none other than Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson! These
designs need a bailout, too: take the one showing a young Abe
sitting on a badly drawn log in perspective. Is this how far the
cent has sunk?
These designs seem to me to break some of the most basic
conventions of coinage. Coins do not render much in the way of
subtle texture or allow for depth of perspective. Coin design
requires fidelity to flatness, the way Clement Greenberg famously
argued that easel painting required expression of the “picture
2005 nickel series with President Jefferson in off-center
Looking at the new designs I suspected I knew the problem: they
come from people used to working on paper and canvas. Sure enough,
a look at the U.S. Mint's website suggests that most of the
designers of the new crop of coin are, I'm afraid to tell you,
graphic designers. Several were chosen through the Mint's
Artistic Infusion Program (AIP), an admirable enough effort to
widen the pool of people designing coins. The 2005 “off center”
nickel, it turns out, was created by AIP artist Joe Fitzgerald, of
Silver Spring, Maryland, and sculpted by U.S. Mint
sculptor-engraver Don Everhart.
Many of the designs on the quarters would be fine on stamps, but
are diminished in metal. There may be a lesson here. In the
competitions that once yielded Weinman's Mercury dime, sculptors
brought energy to a staid design language on coins, born of simple
engraving. Properly marshaled, the powers of graphic design would
help—not harm—coin design. Some of the boldness of the logo and
richness of type would be welcome.
If sculptors created the “golden age” of coins, it was not
because they made the coins into sculpture, but because they
adapted the best of their skills to the conventions and
contingencies of coin making. The sculptors had to rein their art
in, but they had a tradition of doing so: bas relief, the
centuries-old discipline of giving depth to plaques, tombs,
memorials and medals.
Working under constraints often inspires the best design.
Graphic designers can do the same: make their skills meet the needs
of the minting process and enrich it. The dollar will grow mighty
again, perhaps creating an opportunity for designers to
approach coin making a different way, while embracing a thousands
of years long tradition to spark a new golden age.
Who today profits from the creative works of the WPA era? Cushing calls for putting the “public” back in this public art.
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