On a Dime

Let us consider the dime, the smallest and perhaps least remarkable of all American coins. They’re thin, and tiny, and people like to stop on them. And yesterday, they paid off handsomely for my niece.

My research, which might have even lasted seven whole minutes this morning, started with the US Mint, which wasn’t as helpful as one might want it to be, then gravitated straight to the students’ friend, Wikipedia.

The U.S. dime got its start way back in 1792, as part of the Coinage Act. (Think of all the details you would need to work out as you start up a new country: there were probably lots of “acts” in those early years.) Nine years before this particular act, a group of largely marquee names like Jefferson and Franklin, and of course David Rittenhouse, decided Americans ought to use the decimal system for coinage. There should be a coin worth one-tenth of a silver dollar — your dime — and one worth 1/100th (your penny), and even one worth 1/1000th, which you hear about on your tax bill but never see, the mill.

Just like our fries, these august men looked to France to name this one-tenth coin and went old school, using an obsolete French word, disme, descended from the Latin and meaning tithe, or tenth part. I don’t know how we got from disme to dime, unless those French, who like to use a lot of letters they never pronounce, kind of glossed over that S — or maybe someone had bad handwriting and the S got lost next to the M.

At any rate, we got the S out and moved on. Alexander Hamilton, before he became a rap star, was the first secretary of the Treasury, and he felt that the coin representing one-tenth of a silver dollar ought to also be silver. Little problem: the silver contained within might be worth more than a dime. So they made the coin very small and tossed in just under 11 percent copper.

Despite being enacted in 1792, no one really got a dime until 1796, and these featured the bust of Anne Willing Bingham, a Philadelphia socialite married to a prominent statesman (Mr. Bingham). Subsequent dimes featured another female bust, a seated Lady Liberty, the head of Liberty, and finally a capped head of Liberty that caused her to be mistaken for the Roman god Mercury.

Then along came Franklin Roosevelt, our longest-running president and perhaps the only one who had polio as a child. One of the causes he and his wife took up was “infantile paralysis,” which collected dimes for the cause and later became the March of Dimes. After he died in office, public sentiment, or one person with the purse strings, decided his head belonged on the coin he brought to prominence. And that’s the way the coin looks today.

(Proving that conspiracy theories are hardly new, this move engendered outcry when Chief Engraver John Sinnock put his initials on his work, and people assumed instead this was tacit support for Josef Stalin, placed by a Soviet agent inside the mint. Why go with the real story when a conspiracy theory can be so much more convoluted?)

That doesn’t mean the dime stopped evolving. Au contraire. Another Coinage Act, this one in 1965, finally dispensed with the notion tying the dime to its origins as a tenth of a silver dollar. (For you pirate fans out there, when you hear a phrase like “two bits,” that originated from the practice of chopping up reals (ree-al) into eight discrete pieces and spending those bits. That’s why those coins are called “pieces of eight.”)

Yes, the silver dime went away in 1965, and despite the thinness of the coin, it is a “sandwich” of two layers of cupronickel (75 percent copper 25 percent nickel — so that’s what the Mint meant with its unhelpful description) on either side of pure copper. Despite its shiny silverness, then, a dime is more copper than a penny, which is only 2 percent copper and the rest zinc.

So now, following the history of dimes, we come to my dad the historian. Not my dad the investor. My dad who grew up on a farm where they were probably versed in commodity prices and perhaps savings bonds.

About the maddest my mom, raised by parents who owned a tax attorney business, ever got at my dad was the day he went out the door with $500 in his pocket and came back with a bag of dimes.

I can’t recall if I ever saw this bag of dimes, although I’ve heard about it. Oh, I’ve heard about it. I don’t know how many dimes it was. At face value, you would need 5,000 dimes to equal $500 — but these were silver dimes, bought as an investment.

Not, mind you, that it was my mother’s idea of a good investment. She has very firm — extremely firm — ideas about what makes good investments and what things people, or at least the people in our family, ought to stay away from. Coins, in case you’re wondering, are not on her “good investment” list.

I also don’t recall when in my youth my dad bought his bag of dimes. I do remember as a fifth grader lamenting with a classmate that the price of candy bars had gone from a dime to 15 cents, so we could have been talking 5,000 candy bars worth of dimes. It might have been later; maybe by then you could only buy half as many candy bars. Either way, $500 was a bigger investment back then than it would be today.

Sometime after this purchase, my dad died, never having cashed in the dimes. This was back in 1980, which if we’re counting, was 41 years ago. My mother, it turns out, has hung onto this bag all these years, even if it makes her sputter every time she mentions them: “He bought dimes! I was ready to kill him!”

Until yesterday.

Don’t ask me for a tutorial on the stock market, because frankly it seems like legalized gambling to me, especially when you start talking hedges and shorts and all the stuff that we’re all hearing about in these GameStop days. But whatever game the Reddit crowd is playing at, it spread to silver yesterday. And my mom had a 40-, maybe 50-year-old bag of silver dimes in her possession.

A text conversation ensued. My mom wanted her granddaughter in Boulder to take the dimes to a coin store in that city. Said granddaughter’s mother was sure said granddaughter wouldn’t do this, or if we waited for her to actually go there, the dimes would probably be worth less than 10 cents apiece.

However, when it was determined that the proceeds of the sale, which my mother estimated would net $619, would go to my niece, that appeared to get her off the dime. She drove to my mom’s house, collected the dimes, drove to the coin store and came out with a piece of paper and a text report to her grandmother that may have included a bad word: holy S.

My mother, for all her financial acumen, really hates dimes, and her estimate was off. Either she misheard the coin dealer on the phone or the price really shot up yesterday (a distinct possibility these heady days — it’s only money, right?): Ellie came out with $1,519.20 in a not-very-collectible but eminently cashable check.

As an investment, my mom turns out to have been right. If the internet is correct, and we figure a 45-year investment period on those dimes, then they appreciated at a rate of 2.4 percent per annum. But they did appreciate and Ellie, who had to spend all her Christmas money on auto repair, certainly appreciated them.

All things considered, there are worse ways to spend a dime.

One thought on “On a Dime

  1. The designer of the 1909 Lincoln Head Penny put his initials on it. V.D.B., Victor D. Brenner. There was such an outcry about the designer adding his initials that the 1909 penny is the only year with his initials so prominently displayed on it. Sooooooo, the 1909 S VDB penny is the rarest and most expensive penny.

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