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.
These 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.
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.