Q. David Bowers (edited and updated by Mike Sherman): The design of the 1796-97 dime parallels that of the contemporary half dime. The obverse depicts Liberty with flowing hair, a ribbon behind her head, and drapery covering her neckline. LIBERTY is above and the date is below. Thirteen obverse stars are found on the 1796, while the 1797 features either 13 or 16 obverse stars. The reverse consists of an open wreath, tied with a bow at the bottom, enclosing a small eagle perched on a cloud, with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA surrounding. No indication of denomination or value appears.
Examples of this type are most often encountered in lower grades from About Good to Fine. Very Fine and Extremely Fine pieces are progressively more difficult. Occasionally an AU or Uncirculated 1796 dime will be found, but very few pieces dated 1797 exist in Mint State or close to it. Mint-caused adjustment marks are often seen, as are areas of normal light striking. These pieces were meant strictly for utilitarian use, and no thought was given to producing pieces for collectors.
-- Reprinted with permission from "United States Coins by Design Types - An Action Guide for the Collector and Investor" by Q. David Bowers