USA Coin Album: Coins of the 1950s — Part 4

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 12/10/2013

The dime is perhaps the least interesting denomination of all 1950s coinage, but it does have its own stories.

Mintages were routinely high, with the sole exceptions of the three 1955 issues, but even these have survived in the thousands of uncirculated pieces due to the well established practice of saving fresh rolls. Banks were much more accommodating back then, and tellers would always provide new coins to their customers. Collectors and speculators took eager advantage of this opportunity from the 1930s onward.

The 1955 dimes from all three mints each had production totals under 20 million pieces, and in a relative sense this made them stick out as “rarities.” The hoarding of uncirculated coins was not as complete for these as for the 1950-D nickel, but all were rendered fairly scarce in circulation. My own collecting of dimes began around 1965-66, when silver coins still predominated, and I had no trouble locating the 1955(P) and 1955-S dimes (of course, living just a few miles from the San Francisco Mint gave me an edge over many collectors, but the Denver Mint dime somehow eluded me and had to be purchased a few years later). Far more scarce in circulation were the three 1950 dimes, which had already succumbed to hoarding.

All other Roosevelt dimes from the 1950s were found with ease, though most were quite worn. I’ve said this in print enough times to be boring, but I’ll still remind readers who were not collecting coins during the silver era just how rapidly silver pieces wore. After 15 years circulation, the typical silver dime was apt to grade no higher than VG-8 or -10. Compare that to our current copper-nickel-clad dimes, which require some 40 years to suffer that much wear. Part of this durability is the result of their harder alloy, but it is also reflective of the fact that dimes are worth too little to bother spending, most of them ending up in trays or jars for months or years at a time. This was simply not the case during the silver era, when coins typically changed hands quickly.

Like most USA coins of the 1950s, uncirculated dimes of these years often reveal very worn dies that produced weak, distorted strikes. Quality control was the least of the Mint’s concerns at the time, and the resulting coins clearly reveal this low priority. Finding sharply struck pieces from fresh dies should be the primary goal of any sophisticated dime collector, but most hobbyists are content to focus solely on the certified grade when making their selections. Remember, coins with high numeric grades may have either good or mediocre strikes, as this quality is not rated as highly as luster and surfaces when assigning a grade. Fortunately for the Roosevelt dime collector, enough pieces survive that sharp examples may be found for nearly all date/mint combinations.

As a general rule, the Denver Mint dimes will be the ones most often found with sharp details. Perhaps as a consequence of their bolder strikes, they are seemingly more affected by contact marks, and this often reduces their assigned grades. The Philadelphia and San Francisco Mint dimes, particularly the latter, are likely to be found with soft, indistinct details from worn dies that resulted in very bright, frosty luster. While deficient from a technical perspective, such coins are quite pleasing to the casual viewer and often receive very high grades. The astute buyer will seek dimes that combine both sharp strikes and good luster/surfaces, and it is this pursuit alone that makes completing a set of Roosevelt dimes challenging.

In recent years a specialized market has developed for coins displaying full details on the torch. This is analogous to the Mercury dime market in that the emphasis is primarily on the horizontal bands of the torch. The two major grading services differ in their definitions of a full strike. NGC uses the designation FT (Full Torch) to indicate that all features of the torch are complete. PCGS, however, uses FB (Full Bands) for its familiarity from Mercury dimes, but this refers solely to complete horizontal bands and does not address the remaining features of the torch. Not surprisingly, the 1950s dimes most likely to achieve either designation are the Denver Mint pieces, followed by the Philadelphia and San Francisco dimes in that order.

Such minutiae appeals primarily to the most advanced collectors competing in online certified registries, while the more casual collector will be satisfied with any eye-appealing specimen grading MS 64 or higher. Fortunately there are enough mint state Roosevelt dimes of all issues to satisfy both markets, though some issues designated either FB or FT will bring substantial premiums for their condition rarity.

There are numerous minor varieties for dimes of this decade, and the best of these are featured in Volume II of Cherrypickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties of United States Coins. Repunched mintmarks dominate these entries, and a couple are of particular interest, as the first mintmark impressions were not upright. One die used for 1953-D dimes reveals the second D punched over a horizontal D, while another dime die used in 1959 shows the first impression completely inverted.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.