USA Coin Album: A Look at Roosevelt Dimes

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 6/8/2010

Widely heralded upon its release, the Roosevelt Dime has drawn mixed reactions from collectors, yet still serves as a representative of the modern coin market. David W. Lange takes a look at why.

For collectors of my generation, the Roosevelt dime was once thought of as a “new” coin. While I wasn’t around at the time of its debut in 1946, I couldn’t help but make negative comparisons with the Mercury dime, which was still circulating in my youthful collecting days. I started collecting from circulation just before the introduction of clad coins, and nearly all issues in the Roosevelt series were still obtainable as pocket change. In actual application I came up short on the 1949–50 pieces, which were being hoarded due to their low mintages, and I also failed to find the 1947-D and 1955-D issues, which I later obtained by trading coins with a neighbor kid. All the remaining pieces, however, were found without resorting to roll searches, an activity that didn’t even occur to me until a few years later.

I’ve written before of my early coin purchases at the coin and stamp department of the Emporium in downtown San Francisco, and the six missing dimes of 1949–50 were among my very first such investments. Since circulated examples then carried no premium value and weren’t even stocked, my only option was to buy these in BU condition (that’s Brilliant Uncirculated for you youngsters who don’t remember the pre-certification days). They looked decidedly out of place in my Whitman folder alongside coins grading as low as About Good (another fact that may be unknown to the current generation of collectors is just how rapidly silver coins wore in circulation — these pieces were then no more than 20 years old).

The Roosevelt dime was widely heralded upon its debut in January 1946. It was designed and sculpted by US Mint Chief Engraver John Ray Sinnock, who prepared numerous designs before the final models were selected. It seems that the Treasury Department made the right choice, as the alternatives (a few of which are illustrated in Don Taxay’s book The US Mint and Coinage) are weak. This is particularly true of the original obverse, in which the Roosevelt bust is quite undersized, reminding me of the shrunken George Washington seen on quarter dollars since 1999. Sculptor Selma Burke’s claim that Sinnock appropriated her bust of FDR for his dime model has only slight merit and won’t be examined here.

Despite fall-offs in production during the economic recessions of 1949–50 and 1958 (and the unexplained low mintages of 1955), the number of Roosevelt dimes coined at the various mints has always been sufficient to make these coins common Uncirculated. The practice by collectors of saving fresh rolls of coins upon release was firmly in place by 1946, and those coins having relatively low mintages were preserved in even greater numbers by speculators. As noted above, this made the key dates difficult to find only in circulation.

When unworn, silver Roosevelt dimes tend to acquire quite attractive toning if placed in cardboard albums having clear slides on both sides of the coins. This practice, though now less common in this time of encapsulation, once imparted very pretty coloration in a symmetrical pattern, the deepest colors appearing at the borders, while the centers remained silvery white or just a light golden shade (the Mint’s cardboard Uncirculated Set holders of 1947–58 provided somewhat similar toning, though their paper coverings also made the coins blotchy at times, and it’s not uncommon to find some employee’s thumbprint as well!) In contrast, the copper-nickel-clad dimes minted since 1965 are much more resistant to toning, and the resulting coloration is less appealing in most instances. Proofs of this coin type are more likely to acquire attractive toning than currency pieces.

Speaking of clad dimes, these were quite a novelty when introduced, but collectors were disappointed with them upon actual inspection. The alloy is much harder than that used for the silver issues, and many of the finer details of the design did not translate well in striking. The problem of poor strikes was exacerbated by excessive use of the dies with resulting obvious signs of heavy erosion (with the price of silver rising, the Mint was in a hurry to replace the silver coins before they were grabbed by hoarders). Coming at a time of other crises in the coin hobby (the suspension of both mintmarks and proof coin sales), the result of such poor quality was a near collapse of the 30-year-old practice of saving rolls. Collectors simply didn’t care for the new coins and didn’t bother adding them to their albums. Interest in the clad series was so low that speculators had no motivation to save BU rolls, and several of these issues are now relatively scarce Uncirculated, despite huge mintages.

Clad coins, ignored for years except by those buying the annual Proof Sets and Uncirculated Sets, now comprise a majority of the Roosevelt dime series. The Mint has solved most of its quality issues by simply lowering the relief of the coins and reducing the size of the central devices. This has left the current entries pale imitations of the original design, though they do strike up fully in most instances. Interest in the entire Roosevelt series is moderate, but the popularity of online collection registries has made the highest-graded specimens far more valuable than they were to earlier generations. In that sense, the Roosevelt dime is representative of the market in modern coins as a whole.

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

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