The Roosevelt Dime has been a fixture in United States circulation since 1946. Honoring four-term United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, this long-running coin is not only widely familiar with Americans but also to collectors in many regions around the world. When understanding Roosevelt’s far-ranging achievements both within the White House and beyond, it’s clear to grasp why Roosevelt, who died in office in 1945, is worthy of recognition on a United States coin.
He led the nation out of the Great Depression in the 1930s and through World War II in the 1940s. The former New York governor and distant cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt also helped construct Social Security, established important banking acts, and formed the New Deal, which helped keep millions of Americans working during the toughest economic times of the mid-1930s. But why is he on the dime?
A Frightening Diagnosis
The dime carries a special significance when referencing Roosevelt’s life and particularly one of the major causes he spearheaded in his latter years. At the age of 39, the future 32nd president was diagnosed with infantile paralysis – a disease better known as polio – following a stay at his family’s cottage in New Brunswick, Canada in 1921.
How he contracted the diseases is unclear. He may have contracted the virus, which affects the nervous system, while visiting a New York Boy Scout camp; however, the crippling symptoms leading to his diagnosis set in during the hours immediately after his accidental plunge into the chilly Bay of Fundy waters while yachting. Following the incident, he fell ill and over the course of a few days his legs weakened to the point that he could no longer support himself while standing.
Polio had no known cure in the 1920s, and Roosevelt, suddenly dealing with lower-body paralysis, confronted the very real possibility that he might experience complete paralysis. He eventually found swimming in the waters of an estate in Warm Springs, Georgia, to be highly therapeutic and bought the property in 1926, converting it into the Warm Springs Foundation, which served as a leading care center for those afflicted by polio.
Can You Spare A Dime?
Polio was a diagnosis that didn’t stop Roosevelt, who had already been elected as a New York state senator in 1910, served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and was on the Democratic ticket as vice president in 1920. He appeared on crutches at the 1924 Democratic Convention to throw his support to New York Governor Alfred E. Smith for the presidency and himself became governor of the Empire State in 1928.
His rise to the presidency in 1932 broke barriers, Roosevelt proving to the nation and the world that polio couldn’t keep him down. That grit surely helped Roosevelt lead the United States through some of its darkest days with the Great Depression at its worst point by the time he arrived in office on March 4, 1933. Battling economic travails unlike the nation had seen, Roosevelt continued fighting for a cure to end polio. On January 3, 1938, he founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, an organization aimed at funding research to create a polio vaccine.
Perhaps the organization would still be known as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to this day if not for a comical aside by popular singer and entertainer Eddie Cantor, who during a 1938 radio broadcast encouraged Americans to send dimes to Roosevelt in support of his new polio organization. The lighthearted plea worked, as evidenced by the 2,680,000 dimes that appeared at the White House over the next weeks. This compelled further support ranging from individuals at the grassroots level to A-list Hollywood celebrities. Roosevelt soon changed the name of his polio cause to March of Dimes Foundation, and the name has stuck ever since.
Putting Roosevelt on the Dime
Roosevelt was a leading advocate for polio research for decades, easily serving as the cause’s most visible champion. Sadly, he didn’t get to see the day in March 1953 when Dr. Jonas Salk announced a polio vaccine. Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, at his estate in Warm Springs, Georgia, at the age of 63.
His death spurred lawmakers to call for memorials honoring Roosevelt. Among these proposals was one by Louisiana Representative James Hobson Morrison, who introduced congressional legislation for the Roosevelt Dimes on May 3, 1945. Within the sight of two weeks, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., declared the Winged Liberty Head (“Mercury”) motif would be replaced by a bust of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an announcement that was mostly supported by the public but did meet some pushback from those who wanted to keep the popular Adolph A. Weinman design seen on the dime since 1916.
As the Mercury Dime had been in production for more than 25 years by the time of Roosevelt’s death (and the subsequent calls to honor him on the denomination), existing law permitted the design to be changed without an act of Congress. With the help of his assistant Gilroy Roberts, Chief Engraver of the United States Mint John R. Sinnock designed the obverse and reverse of the Roosevelt Dime. One of the original reverse sketches depicted a single hand clasping both a lit torch and olive branch, while others incorporated Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, Miss Liberty, and the United Nations Conference of 1945 at the War Memorial Opera House.
John Sinnock sculpts a model for the obverse of the Roosevelt Dime. Public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Perfecting the Roosevelt Dime
Commission of Fine Arts Chairman Gilmore Clarke was unhappy with the original obverse and reverse drafts for the Roosevelt Dime and suggested the opening of a limited design competition among some of the leading numismatic artists of the day to create the new coin. But by that point it was already October 1945, and Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross was concerned that time was growing short to get the new dime into production by January 1946. She declined to launch a design contest, favoring instead some minor reworking of Sinnock’s obverse that resulted in a few changes, such as switching of locations for the date and inscription “LIBERTY,” allowing for a larger portrait.
Following the tweaks, models for the new Roosevelt Dime were approved by Commission of Fine Arts member Lee Lawrie and the recently appointed Treasury Secretary Fred Vinson, who replaced Morgenthau months into the new presidency of former Vice President Harry S. Truman. Ross confirmed the approvals with the Commission of Fine Arts on January 8, 1946, and rollout of the new Roosevelt Dime was set into action. The first Roosevelt Dimes were struck just days later, on January 19, and were released on January 30 – the same day that would have marked the fallen president’s 64th birthday.
The Roosevelt Dime design has inspired a fair degree of controversy over the years, with some even suggesting Sinnock lifted the coin’s likeness of Roosevelt from a plaque by sculptor Selma Burke in 1945. Meanwhile, a 1956 New York Times obituary for a photographer Marcel Sternberger credits him with taking a portrait of President Roosevelt that Sinnock used for designing the portrait on the dime, essentially rebutting the claim that the chief engraver used Burke’s plaque as direct muse for his design. Furthermore, Cold War-era rumors that the “JS” initials on the coin representing designer John Sinnock were a placed there to covertly honor Soviet leader Joseph Stalin gained some steam in the years following the coin’s release in 1946. However, that conspiracy theory was debunked by way of government press releases.
Still, hobby luminaries generally embraced the Roosevelt Dime, with numismatic author Don Taxay saying, “Roosevelt had never looked better!” Coin journalist Mark Benvenuto suggested the Roosevelt dime appeared more natural than presidential portraits on other coins. And Boston art scholar Cornelius Clarkson Vermeule noted the Roosevelt Dime is “a clean, satisfying, and modestly stylish, no-nonsense coin that in total view comes forth with notes of grandeur.”
Such glowing commentary didn’t dissuade noted hobby expert Walter Breen from asserting “the new design was […] no improvement at all on Weinman’s [Mercury Dime] except for eliminating the fasces [on the coin’s reverse] and making vegetation more recognizably an olive branch for peace.” Can’t win them all, one might say. But it’s fair to say that Roosevelt, the man noted for saying “we have nothing to fear but fear itself,” did. He overcame polio, pulled the nation from the depths of the Great Depression and toward victory in World War II, and from the face of the dime lives on in the collective consciousness of Americans more than 75 years after his death.
- Berish, Amy. “FDR & Polio.” FDR Library & Museum. Accessed October 21, 2020.
- Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of US and Colonial Coins. Doubleday, 1988.
- “Dr. Jonas Salk Announces Polio Vaccine.” History. Accessed October 21, 2020.
- “Franklin D. Roosevelt.” The White House. Accessed October 20, 2020.
- “Franklin Founds March of Dimes.” History. Accessed October 20, 2020.
- Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Arco Publishing, 1966.
- “The History of Vaccines.” The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.” Accessed October 21, 2020.
- Van Ryzin, Robert R. Fascinating Facts, Mysteries & Myths About U.S. Coins. Krause Publications, 2009.
- Vermeule, Cornelius. Numismatic Art in America. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
- “Warm Springs Historic District.” National Park Service. Accessed October 21, 2020.