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10-cent rarity: 1894-S Barber dime long prized
By Tom LaMarre
May 16, 2017

The San Francisco Mint struck only 24 dimes in 1894. Fewer than half of them are known to survive. The sale of an existing specimen and the ongoing search for the missing 1894-S dimes has attracted attention practically since the day they were minted.

Charles Barber’s Liberty Head design had been in use only two years when the rarities were created. “Under the authority of the act of Congress approved Sept. 28, 1890, the Director of the Mint has prepared a new design for silver coin, which has been approved by the Secretary of the Treasury,” the Nov. 21, 1891, Hood River, Or., Glacier reported. “The design is intended for half dollars, quarters and dimes.”

An item from the Philadelphia Press was reprinted in the San Francisco Call, Nov. 12, 1891:

“The half and quarter dollar and dime silver coins that have been familiar since 1835 will be retired from circulation after Jan. 1st next, and a new design will be substituted after that date.

“Director of the Mint E.O. Leach, accompanied by his son, arrived at the Lafayette Hotel last night from Washington. The Director brought with him photographs of the new and handsome designs for the new coins, which have been prepared by Charles E. Barber, under his direction. The adoption of the new designs marks the beginning of a distinctively new era in the coinage of this country....

“Superintendent of the Mint O.C. Bosbyshell said…‘Under the act authorizing a change in the subsidiary coin of the United States, designs were submitted to the Director of the Mint from numerous sources. While many of them were very pretty, all were found to be impracticable. The designers of the Mint in this city were then instructed to prepare dies of different designs.…

“‘These new dies will in my opinion make a very beautiful coin. The trouble with most of the designs submitted which were rejected by the department was that the relief figures in them were too prominent’.…

“Director Leach will stay a couple of days at the Mint arranging for the preparation of the dies. The new coins, it is stated, will be radically different from those now in use, and of a design that will be at once recognized as handsomer than any coin ever in use in this country.”

All three denominations had a Liberty Head design. “On the obverse face of the coin is a female head representative of liberty,” the Glacier said, “looking to the right with an olive leaf and Phoenician cap on the back of the head. On the band or fillet over the front of the head is the word ‘Liberty’.… The dime, on the obverse side, in place of stars, will have ‘United States of America.’ ‘In God We Trust’ will be omitted from the dime. The reverse will be the same as the present dime in use.”

The widespread use of Barber coins in the West was an important part of the government’s plan. “There has been a great demand from the West for these coins,” Mint Director Frank Leach said, “and just as speedily as possible shipments will be made to supply this demand.”

Quoted in the Jan. 9, 1892, Arizona Weekly Citizen, Leach added, “Many people wanted the new coin for Christmas uses, but it was found impossible to get the dies and other material ready for use at that period, and besides, the notice was too short. But our constituents in the West will be furnished the new coins just as fast as they can be struck off, for the department is anxious to make a good showing of the new and attractive designs and to have them disseminated as widely as can be done.”

In the case of California, shipments of dimes from Philadelphia were not necessary. The Jan. 8, 1892, San Francisco Call said:

“The new dies for 1892 have been received at the Mint, but they will not be used until the beginning of next week. The size has to be changed somewhat to fit the molds [sic] of the coiner.

“The only changes beyond the date are in the fractional currency—dimes, quarters and half dollar pieces. Formerly these had on the obverse side a seated figure of the Goddess of Liberty. In the new die the Liberty Head only will be shown, as on the gold coins.”

The Feb. 4 issue of the Call said the new silver coins were “open to some criticism from an artistic standpoint,” but found them “certainly superior to those of the past half-century.”

The April 5, 1892, Los Angeles Herald called the Barber dime “a failure from a practical standpoint” and complained about Liberty’s “bullheaded” appearance.

The Feb. 18, 1892, Wichita Daily Eagle claimed the new dimes were thicker than the old ones as a result of their raised edges. As a result, they wouldn’t fit the slots in the opera-glass cases attached to the backs of chairs in theaters.

Barber dime production outpaced demand. Quoted in the Oct. 1, 1893, Call, U.S. Treasurer E.H. Nebeker said, “New quarters and dimes in amounts of $200 or more, if desired, can be forwarded from the Mint of the United States, San Francisco, and drafts in payment therefor should be drawn in favor of the Superintendent of the Mint, United States, at San Francisco, and mailed directly to that officer.”

Silver coins of “uncurrent” design—the Seated Liberty type—were being melted in large quantities. In 1893 The Bankers’ Magazine said that by the recoinage of uncurrent half dollars into new quarters and dimes, for which there was an urgent demand, the Treasury had been “relieved of a large unavailable asset, and the small change of the country increased to a corresponding extent.”

By 1894, however, there was a glut of dimes on hand. According to the Mint director’s Annual Report for fiscal 1893, the San Francisco Mint had a stockpile of 2,678,188 dimes of the “current” design.

Then why did it strike two dozen dimes in 1894? Many theories and explanations have been suggested. Possibly the earliest, most plausible and authoritative one appeared in newspapers in 1895. Under the heading “A Valuable Dime,” a story in the Aug. 25, 1895, Call said:

“Whoever has a dime of 1894 coined by the San Francisco Mint has a coin for which $5 has already been offered, and when all the facts are known regarding its scarcity it is not unlikely that it will command a much higher premium.

“Inquiry at the Mint elicited the information that during the fiscal year of 1894 only 24 dimes were coined at the San Francisco Mint. How this came about was told by Chief Clerk Robert Barnett:

“‘All uncurrent subsidiary coins, viz.: those containing other than the design being used when received at the subtreasury, are not again allowed to go into circulation, but are sent to the Mint to be recoined with the current design.

“‘In the course of the year 1894 we received a large sum in these coins, but having an ample supply of dimes on hand, it was not intended to coin any of that denomination in 1894. However, when nearly all this subsidiary coin bullion had been utilized, we found on our hands a quantity that would coin to advantage only into dimes, and into dimes it was coined, making just 24 of them.

“‘My attention was first drawn to the matter particularly by the receipt of a letter from a collector somewhere in the East requesting a set of coins of 1894. In filling this order I found there were no dimes of that date on hand. Subsequently I received quite a number of similar letters and in each case was, of course, unable to furnish the dime.

“‘Plenty of dimes were coined that year at Philadelphia and New Orleans Mints, but there are collectors who accumulate the coinage of each Mint, as each has its distinguishing mark. Those coined here bear a letter ‘S’.…

“We receive each year about 50 requests from coin collectors for coins, mostly for those of silver.”

More popular than Barnett’s explanation is the so-called ice cream legend popularized by numismatic researcher and author James Johnson. According to the story, a group of San Francisco bankers asked San Francisco Mint superintended John Daggett to strike dimes for them. Daggett ordered 24 pieces struck and gave the seven bankers three dimes apiece. The remaining three went to the superintendent’s daughter, Hallie Daggett. Although she was told to hold onto them because they would someday be valuable, it was a hot day and Hallie spent one of the dimes for ice cream on her way home.

Hallie reportedly sold the other two 1894-S dimes to San Francisco coin dealer Earl Parker in the 1950s.

John Daggett was a big man in California history. He arrived there by way of the Isthmus of Panama in 1852, became the owner of the Big Bear Mine, which produced $3 million in gold, served as lieutenant governor from 1883 to 1887, and superintendent of the San Francisco Mint from 1893 to 1897. He retired to Black Bear, Calif., in 1919 and died there in 1936.

Hallie Daggett also left her mark on history. She was born in 1878, which would have made her 15 years old when the 1894-S dimes were struck. This in itself makes the so-called ice cream story sound unlikely. In 1913 Hallie became the first woman hired by the U.S. Forest Service as a “fire lookout.” She worked on Klamath Peak, Klamath National Forest until 1927. An article in American Forestry magazine in 1914 said:

“Few women would care for such a job, fewer still would seek it, and still fewer would be able to stand the strain of the infinite loneliness, or the roar of the violent storms which sweep the peak, or the menace of the wild beasts which roam the heavily wooded ridges.

“Miss Daggett, however, not only eagerly longed for the station but secured [the lookout position] after considerable exertion, and now she declares that she enjoyed the life and was intensely interested in the work she had to do.”

In 1951 the town of Etna, Calif., built a cabin on Main street for Hallie. She died there in 1964.

The Daggett’s relationship with the 1894-S dimes parallels a story mentioned in the February 1951 issue of The Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine, which said William Bailey of San Francisco had forwarded a newspaper clipping telling of their sale. John and Hallie Daggett were not mentioned by name, and the location was different, but the ice cream story was basically the same.

In this version a Ukiah, Calif., banker gave three dimes to his daughter in 1894 and told her to save them. The article said she had recently sold two of them for $2,750. After looking “high and low” for the third specimen, she remembered that it was a hot day when her father gave her the dimes and she visited an ice cream parlor on the way home.

The problem with both versions of the ice cream dime story is that the arithmetic is incorrect. Records indicate five 1894-S dimes were sent to the Assay Commission for testing and eventual destruction, leaving only 19 examples extant.

That was enough for the search for 1894-S dimes to continue. “The Youth’s Corner” column in the Feb. 26, 1896, Aspen Tribune, “Instructive Reading For Our Boys and Girls,” said:

“In 1894 24 10-cent pieces were coined at the San Francisco Mint. Not very many, but one might stray your way. If it should, a coin collector will pay $5 for it, and the price is liable to rise.

“Keep your eye on the dimes which pass through your hands, and when you see one dated 1894 and marked with an ‘S’ hang onto it—someday it will command a still higher premium.”

In 1896 the Engineering and Mining Journal claimed 30 1894-S dimes were struck. The Journal provided a table as “a description of money coined at the San Francisco Mint in the past two calendar years.” It listed $3 worth of dimes struck in 1894 and $112,000 worth in 1895.

“Again, 10-cent pieces seem to be greatly in demand,” the New York Sun reported in 1895.

The 1894-S dime was often the subject of queries to newspapers. One of the earliest comments appeared in the “Answers to Correspondents” column in the Nov. 19, 1895, Call:

“Dime of ’94 – R.P. Hanford, Kings County, Cal. The statement has been published several times in this department that there were but 24 dimes coined in the Mint at San Francisco during the year 1894, and that $5 had been offered for one of these coins. They were not put in circulation. Consequently, if there are any dimes out there with the San Francisco mintmark, they are what numismatists call ‘restrikes,’ else they are counterfeits.”

A response in the same vein but holding out a glimmer of hope for dime-hunters appeared in the Oct. 13, 1897, column:

“Two Dimes – M.J.A., Lakeport, Lake County, Cal. There is no premium offered by dealers on a dime coined in San Francisco in 1892. Dealers in coins will pay a premium for a dime coined in San Francisco in 1894. There were but 24 coins of that denomination coined in that year, and as they are all accounted for it is not likely that any are in circulation.”

The Nov. 15, 1897, issue of the Call referred to the 1894-S dime, the source of many inquiries, as “that dime again.” The Dec. 23, 1897 “Answers” column said:

“A dime of 1894 is worth just 10 cents if it is in good condition and was coined in a United States Mint outside of the San Francisco Mint. If coined in the last-named place it commands a premium.”

“Somebody started the story that dimes coined in the United States in 1894 brought fabulous prices,” the Jan. 24, 1906, Call said. “This is true only as to dimes coined in that year in the San Francisco branch Mint.”

The Minneapolis Journal, quoted in the March 10, 1900, Durango, Col., Democrat, said:

“If you happen to have a 10-cent piece of the date 1894 and that 10-cent piece happens to bear on its back the small ‘S’ mintmark, then you had better not use that dime to buy a cigar or a glass of soda water, because you can get $25 for it. Any professional dealer in old coins will buy it at that price.

“But don’t waste too much time looking at the mintmarks and don’t take around coins of 1895 or 1893. It will do you no good and will only irritate the old coin man.

“There are only 24 10-cent pieces answering to the above description in existence. In fact, there may not be that many now, but that is all that were coined by the Mint at San Francisco during that year. It is by reason of the small number in existence that they command so great a premium.”

The March 5, 1909, Greenville, S.C., Herald-Journal reprinted an item from the Asheville Citizen:

“That dimes bearing the date of 1894 and the letter ‘S’ are indeed scarce is evident from the fact that although the Citizen some weeks ago published that a dime of this description is worth $50, no one has claimed to have located one of them.

“But sundry other dimes have been brought by people who inquired if they were of value to coin collectors. Some showed the 1894 date but bore no ‘S,’ while others were stamped with an ‘S,’ but were not coined in 1894.

“The S indicates that the coin was minted at San Francisco.”

In 1900 The Numismatist reported:

“He got one. – J.C. Mitchelson of Kansas City, but who has business interests in San Francisco and has been spending much time there, writes that he has discovered an 1894-S dime. The Mint authorities there inform him that while 24 were originally struck, only 14 went into circulation, the remaining 10 being restruck. None remain in the Mint.”

Mitchelson left his coin collection to the Connecticut State Library.

In the January 1900 issue of The Numismatist, however, A.G. Heaton claimed ownership of the only known 1894-S dime:

“The San Francisco Mint takes proudly to itself the sensation of later U.S. coinage in striking but $2.40 worth of dimes, or 24 pieces in all, in the year 1894. Of these, the writer possesses the only one known in the numismatic world.”

The Jan. 2, 1909, Ogdensburg Journal said, “According to Mehl’s Numismatic Monthly for January, the most complete collection of United States silver coins ever formed is owned by H.O. Granberg, the Western numismatist.… It contains such varieties as the 1894 San Francisco dime.”

Writing in The Numismatist in 1928, Farran Zerbe said the 24 1894-S dimes were struck “because it was necessary to show $2.40 in the year’s coinage.”

Explaining that his information about the limited coinage was obtained at the San Francisco Mint in 1905, Zerbe said two or three of the coins were reportedly obtained by Mint employees at the time they were struck “just to have a new dime.” The rest were supposedly put into a bag with other dimes and passed out of the Mint for circulation.

A different explanation appeared in the 1928 Proceedings of the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia:

“The 1894 San Francisco dime is another rarity. The reason for that is that the head of the San Francisco Mint in closing his books for the fiscal year had just enough silver left over to make up 24 dimes, and today there are only three of them in existence. Two are in Washington and one in New York.”

In 1936 The American Magazine advised, “Keep your eyes open for any dimes dated 1894 with the letter ‘S’ on them to show they were minted in San Francisco.”

In the April 10, 1937, issue of the Afro American, a reader asked what his 1894 dime was worth. The answer was $200 or $300 if it were struck at San Francisco, while New Orleans or Philadelphia 1894 dimes were only worth face value.

One of the first guides to list the 1894-S dimes was the booklet U.S. Coin Values and Lists, published by C.H. Shinkle of Pittsburgh. Although it bore a 1905 copyright date, it was described as a list of values based on auctions from 1907 to 1910. Shinkle valued a proof 1894-S dime at $50. It was also included in the booklet’s “List of Rare U.S. Coins.”

An article about valuable coins in the Jan. 28, 1927, Ogdensburg, N.Y., Republican Journal listed “Dime, 1894 ‘S’ Mint” at $100 to $200.

In 1911 a collector named Romito reportedly found a heavily circulated 1894-S dime in circulation. In the February 1949 issue of The Numismatist, Louis Goodwin of De Leon, Texas, wrote that his prize possession was an 1894-S dime he had owned for 20 years. Goodwin added that in his estimation it was in “very good” condition. The same year, a classified ad in the Chicago Tribune offered $500 for an 1894-S dime.

In the 1940s Texas coin dealer B. Max Mehl called the 1894-S dime “the rarest U.S. dime and probably the rarest small silver coin in the world.” A letter from William Hartnett in the March 15, 1940, Chateugay Record and Franklin County Democrat said an 1894-S dime was worth more than $500.

The first color pictures of an 1894-S dime to be published appeared in the April 27, 1953, issue of Life magazine. The article “Gems from the Greatest Collection of U.S. Coins” showcased rarities from the Louis Eliasberg collection, including an 1894-S dime “reproduced for the first time in color.” In May 1996 the Eliasberg dime sold for more than $450,000.

Wanted-to-buy ads for 1894-S dimes in coin, stamp and general interest publications were a staple for decades. In Mekeel’s Weekly Stamp News, in 1913, Thomas Elder offered $100 for one of the rare dimes. Forty years later, advertising in Popular Science, the Worthy Coin Corp. offered $500.

In what may have been a typographical error, the Jan. 28, 1947, Potsdam Junction, N.Y., Commercial Advertiser claimed the San Francisco Mint struck 204 Liberty Head dimes in 1894 and they were valued at “up to $500” by collectors.

In 1965 a Reno, Nev., Dodge dealer offered a new car for 10 cents —provided it was an 1894-S dime. An ad in the Reno Evening Gazette said, “The 1894-S dime must be authentic and minted by the United States Mint. Any fake or reproduced 1894-S dime will not be honored.” The car was a Dodge Coronet with automatic transmission, push-button radio and whitewall tires.

In 1972 World Wide Coin Investors of Atlanta paid $50,000 for an 1894-S dime at the American Numismatic Association convention in New Orleans.

At a Heritage auction in January 2016, a Proof-66 1894-S dime, the finest survivor certified by PCGS, sold for $2 million, a far cry from the $5 value cited in newspapers in 1895. Such is the stuff of legends.

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