The dime was one of the last denominations introduced in the United States, although the coins would hold an important place within the monetary system. The first type was known as the Draped Bust Dime, which carried the so-called small eagle reverse in 1796 and 1797 before adopting the heraldic eagle reverse from 1798 until the conclusion of the series in 1807. Ranging in rarity from very scarce to extremely rare, these early dimes are not easily obtainable, particularly in problem free condition.
As Walter Breen mentions in his Encyclopedia, dimes were of great importance to the “crucial test of whether the federal coinage system would be fully decimalized as Congress intended”. With a value of one tenth of a dollar, the coins would be the cornerstone of the American decimal system signed into law by the Coinage Act of 1792. This act called for a dime (or disme, the usual spelling at the time) weighing 41.6 grains and struck in standard silver, defined as 1485 parts pure silver to 179 parts copper. The design was required to contain an image emblematic of Liberty on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse.
The obverse of the Draped Bust Dime features a bust of Liberty, facing right. The image of Liberty is identified by some as Ann Wiling Bingham of Philadelphia, although this identification is disputed and unconfirmed. As the name implies, Liberty’s bust is draped, while her hair is tied together with a ribbon. The word LIBERTY is above her head, and a number of stars are placed to the left and right. On the 1796 issue, there are fifteen stars. Two different star varieties exist for the 1797 issue, one with sixteen stars (following the admission of Tennessee to the Union) and the other with thirteen stars. It was decided that the Mint could not add stars indefinitely for every State that joined the Union, so the number was set at thirteen to represent the original thirteen states. All later issues of this type would only future thirteen obverse stars.
The first reverse, used only in 1796 and 1797, was a modification of an earlier design that had been employed on the flowing hair design, used on various denominations in 1794 and 1795. A small eagle, with its wings spread is seen in the center, enclosed by an olive wreath. Two small ribbons are seen near the bottom of the design. The eagle appears to be standing on some clouds. The only other design feature that can be seen on this type is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, starting to the left of the ribbons and ending to the right. This design would soon be replaced, and this type is now considered to be the most difficult type to acquire within the dime series, with a total mintage of less than 50,000 coins.
The new reverse for the Draped Bust Dime was also designed by Scot, and was also introduced on the other silver denominations of same period. It features a heraldic eagle, viewed from the front, with a large shield at its breast. In the eagle’s beck is a ribbon, inscribed with E PLURIBUS UNUM. Above the eagle’s head is a cluster and clouds, and between the clouds and the eagle are thirteen stars. Some interesting varieties of 1798 and 1804 have a different count of stars, but this does not appear to have been done intentionally. Near the bottom of the design, the eagle’s claw grasp a bundle of arrows and an olive branch. The only design feature that remained from the small eagle reverse is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. On either of the two varieties there is no indication of the denomination.
Robert Scot, the first engraver at the Philadelphia Mint, created the Draped Bust design based on the work of portraitist Gilbert Stuart. This design was used across early copper and silver coinage issued during the era.