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Our tiny silver numismatic mixed metaphor


I love the mercury dime. Both for the beautiful design by Adolph Alexander Weinman, and the brain-hurtingly odd symbolism.

elsiestevens.gifThese were still in circulation when I was a kid, but it was a rare and wonderful thing to get one. It would be too cool if the dude on it were actually Mercury, since Mercury is the god of business and trade. His name is derived from merx — as are the words commerce, merchant and merchandise. But, no. It’s not a dude! It’s a chick! Specifically, it’s this lady, Elsie Kachel Stevens. She was the wife of poet Wallace Stevens. Wallace commissioned Weinman to do her portrait and got two and a half billion of them. Pretty good value for money.

Check out the jaw on that lady! This could almost be a picture of my paternal grandmother, a woman of the same age and time. It’s funny how eras have faces and faces have eras.

Anyhow, here Elsie represents Liberty. That’s a phrygian cap on her head (the one on the coin, not the one in the picture), a bit of old Roman symbolism often used to represent liberty or freedom. It appears in a lot of early American iconography. The wings, however, are unique to this particular design; they symbolize freedom of thought. Okay, got that? The obverse of this coin represents freedom of thought.

Right, so what’s that thing on the back? It’s an olive branch wrapped around the fasces — a bundle of birch sticks bound to an axe. It’s an icon that dates back, possibly, to the Etruscans. Actual fasces were carried in procession in Roman times. The fasces symbolize strength through unity (the rods bound together) or alternatively the power of the state (birch rods, axe: whipping, decapitation. The state has the power of life or death over you, get it?).

Yes, as in fascism. Benito Mussolini coopted the term, both to evoke the fasces of Rome and the modern Italian word fascio, which means union or league. But you can’t blame poor old Weinman for that; fasces are all over our national symbols and state flags. Still are. And Weinman designed this in 1915.

So what’s going on here? Free thought, peace, the power of the state? Well, this coin was a message to Europe, then one year into World War I. Not that they knew that’s what it was going to be called yet, but we wanted no any part of whatever you call it. This coin was meant to say, we think for ourselves and we like peace, but if you screw with us, Europe, we swear to god we’ll cut you good.

Now we know how that worked out for us: Elsie Kachel Stevens and her smurf hat got to circulate through two European wars, and we got drawn into them both.

Eleven million pounds of mercury dimes were minted, and each is 90% silver — worth about fifty cents in today’s market. Salting away bags of mercury dimes for the silver is an old survivalist gambit.

One of which I am not. I just like coins. This is not a collector quality coin (very few of mine are). The fine specimens are all about the bands around the fasces: if you can see that they’re split into multiple cords (“full split bands”), it’s a high quality specimen.


Comment from Enas Yorl
Time: March 26, 2007, 12:34 pm

Wow, that’s wild, wacky stuff! I did not know that. /Carson Jay Leno’s chin is totally jealous.

I’d love to see a mint proof of one of those dimes.

Comment from Christopher Taylor
Time: March 26, 2007, 2:03 pm

Actually if you want to save something for survival, sock away spices. Especially salt, which lasts basically forever. If things go horribly wrong, spices which are already quite expensive will become incredibly valuable.

Comment from mesablue
Time: March 26, 2007, 2:16 pm

I’m going sock away mormons. They have more stuff stored away than anyone and they’ve already done the work.

Comment from Christopher Taylor
Time: March 26, 2007, 6:38 pm

And on the bright side, they are really polite. Like Canadians.

Comment from lizardbrain
Time: March 27, 2007, 9:00 am


So they were still being minted during my lifetime. Makes me feel kinda… middle-aged plus.

If things go horribly wrong, and the planet becomes hot and humid (I wouldn’t complain), how do you keep the salt you’ve salted away from clumping into a solid block? Rice in the shakers? Will rice be as valuable? How about shakers? The possibilities are expanding as I consider them. Maybe I shouldn’t have done so much acid in my younger days.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: March 27, 2007, 9:31 am

Nonsense! Think how boring perception would be if you hadn’t done so much acid. You wouldn’t walk around going, “holy shit! That’s the biggest toad I’ve ever…oh, no. It’s only a leaf. Lord god! What’s a snowy owl doing in my…oh, hang on. It’s a roll of paper towels…” all day.

How dull would that be?

Comment from lizardbrain
Time: March 27, 2007, 12:41 pm

You’re right. I need to add the acid to my gratitude list.

It does make communicating with others somewhat challenging at times. But the plus side is that people tend to give me a lot of personal space. Another item for the gratitude list!

Comment from lizardbrain
Time: March 27, 2007, 12:59 pm

Oh, wait. That last might be because my Saturday night bath isn’t due ’til April. Still grist for the gratitude mill.

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