The Roosevelt Dime: Going Like Sixty


Sixty years ago, Americans checking their pocket change were finding a new coin with growing frequency. That coin, the Roosevelt dime, was considered quite a novelty back then – which may seem hard to believe today, since most people now don’t give it a second look.

After more than six decades of use, this unprepossessing coin is simply taken for granted by Americans in general and collectors in particular.

As it moves through its seventh decade, it deserves a closer look, though, for while it may seem commonplace and conventional today, it was actually quite radical 60 years ago. And, in important ways, it helped set the tone for much of the new U.S. coinage that came in its wake.

To begin with, the decision to honor Franklin Delano Roosevelt on a circulating U.S. coin was more than a little controversial and very much at odds with U.S. coinage tradition at the time.

At the end of World War II in 1945, three U.S. coins – the cent, nickel and quarter – carried portraits of famous presidents. But all three men – Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington – had been dead for many years, and all were securely ensconced in the pantheon of great national leaders.

By contrast, FDR had been dead for only weeks when the Roosevelt dime was authorized. And for all the tremendous accomplishments that stamped him as one of the nation’s outstanding presidents, he had virulent critics who strongly opposed such a tribute and made a concerted effort to prevent it.

Roosevelt had died on April 12, 1945, at the age of 63, shortly after starting his fourth term in the White House and just a few months before the end of the bitter war. Indeed, observers believe the strenuous exertions required of him as a wartime president shortened his life by years.

Many of his countrymen idolized FDR for his role in leading the nation through both the Great Depression and the war during his 12 years at the helm of the ship of state. But while these admirers viewed his New Deal programs as innovative and necessary, equally ardent detractors considered them extreme and even dangerous. For that reason, honoring him on the dime – while logical in retrospect – stirred predictable protest at the time.

By bestowing such a tribute so soon after the death of the president being honored, the Roosevelt dime laid the groundwork for two subsequent coins that did likewise: the Kennedy half dollar and the Eisenhower dollar. Perhaps more importantly, it changed the direction of U.S. coin designs not only from the standpoint of their subjects, but also in terms of their creators: It was the first new regular-issue coin in more than half a century to feature a design by a U.S. Mint staff artist. Significantly, Mint artists have designed most of the regular-issue coins introduced since that time.

The task of designing the dime went to John Ray Sinnock, the Mint’s chief sculptor-engraver – primarily because time was of the essence and the Mint didn’t want to risk the potential delays inherent in a coin-design competition. Mint officials wanted to ensure that the coin would be ready by the culmination of the March of Dimes campaign on Jan. 30, 1946 – which, by no mere coincidence, would have been Roosevelt’s 64th birthday.

Today, the March of Dimes is a charitable organization focused largely on combating birth defects and other health problems associated with American babies. Originally, however, it was an annual fund drive that raised tens of millions of dollars Рoften dime by dime Рto combat the scourge of polio, or infantile paralysis, a disease as feared at that time as cancer is today. To FDR, the campaign was intensely personal, for he himself was thought to be a victim of the disease. Roosevelt was stricken in 1921, at the age of 39, while vacationing at his summer home on Campobello Island in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. He was paralyzed from the waist down, and never regained more than limited use of his legs. (A research report in 2003 concluded that his paralytic illness probably was Guillain-Barr̩ syndrome, not poliomyelitis, but this does not alter its impact on his life or the valor with which he fought to overcome it.)

Unlike his body, Roosevelt’s political ambitions – and his dogged determination to achieve them – never were crippled, and he battled tenaciously to rebuild his health and his career. Though not yet 40 at the time he fell ill, he already had scaled impressive political heights.

Helped by his family’s wealth and his relationship to the enormously popular President Theodore Roosevelt, who was his fifth cousin, FDR won election twice as a state senator in New York. He then served eight years as assistant secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson. Then, in 1920, the Democratic Party chose him to run for vice president on a national ticket headed by Ohio Gov. James M. Cox. The ticket went down to defeat in an election won by Republican Warren G. Harding and his running mate, Calvin Coolidge, but Roosevelt made many important contacts that proved invaluable 12 years later, when he ran for the presidency in his own right.

At that point, Roosevelt’s political prospects seemed almost limitless. Soon after the election, though, his paralyzing illness forced him to withdraw from public life. Over the next several years, he spent much of his time recuperating in the healing waters of Warm Springs, Ga., a little-known health resort to which he would bring international fame.

By 1924, he felt well enough to attend the Democratic National Convention in New York, where he delivered a rousing speech nominating Alfred E. Smith for president – a speech memorable for his coining of the phrase "Happy Warrior" to describe his fellow New Yorker. Smith missed the nomination that year, but got it four years later – and in the same year, 1928, he induced Roosevelt to run for governor of New York, the post he was leaving behind.

The 1928 election was a disaster for Smith, who was overwhelmed by his Republican opponent, Herbert Hoover. But Roosevelt managed to win the governorship, bucking the strong Republican tide which swept the country – including New York – that year. Two years later, he was re-elected resoundingly.

Then, in 1932, he sought and won the Democratic nomination for president and rode to victory over Hoover, who was seeking re-election. Voters were frustrated with the Great Depression and Hoover’s apparent inability to cope with it – and to much of the nation, Roosevelt’s victory meant that happy days were, indeed, here again.

FDR went on to win re-election three times, making him the only president in U.S. history to hold the office for more than two terms.

Roosevelt brought such verve and vigor to the presidency that people tended to forget he was physically handicapped. The March of Dimes served to remind the nation each year that for all his dynamism, this remarkable leader had to rely on braces, crutches and a wheelchair.

The March of Dimes was identified with Roosevelt as closely as the New Deal and the Good Neighbor Policy. In 1937, he personally announced the establishment of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to "lead, direct and unify the fight on every phase of this sickness," and thereafter he played a personal role in the yearly fund drives whenever possible.

Roosevelt’s involvement with the March of Dimes was underscored by the fact that it climaxed each year on his birthday. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the cause, though, was not what he did during any specific fund drive, but what he represented throughout his later life: a symbol of man’s ability to surmount this feared disease.

FDR’s close association with the annual appeal was particularly evident on Jan. 30, 1946, when the end of that year’s fund drive served as the official kickoff for the new dime. The importance of this linkage to officials at the Mint was abundantly clear. Leland Howard, the Mint’s acting director, put it this way: "It is desired that the new dimes be produced at the beginning of the calendar year in sufficient quantity to use them in the infantile paralysis drive."

Sinnock was selected as designer of the dime not only in the interest of saving time, but also because Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross greatly admired the FDR medal he fashioned years earlier for the Mint’s presidential series. The project was kept under wraps, according to Frank Gasparro, then a junior assistant engraver and later chief engraver himself for 17 years.

"This was all done quietly," Gasparro recalled in 1986, when the coin reached its 40th anniversary. "Some people – and particularly some newspapers – still had a great deal of antagonism toward Roosevelt, so Mrs. Ross didn’t want the word getting out that a coin was being planned in his honor. Sinnock did a lot of his work in the back room, and sometimes he worked on this at home. The public was not supposed to know about it yet."

FDR’s portrait was, of course, a natural choice for the obverse of the dime. But designing it proved surprisingly troublesome for Sinnock, even with his presidential medal available as a guide.

"John was pretty sick at the time," according to Gilroy Roberts, Sinnock’s top assistant in 1945 and later his successor as chief engraver. "He had a brain tumor and his health was failing, and that may explain it – but for whatever reason, he just couldn’t get the same kind of spirit in his coin design as he had been able to get in the medal."

This deficiency was apparent to the federal Commission of Fine Arts, which reviewed the design in October 1945 and rejected it.

"In the opinion of the Commission, the head of the late President Roosevelt, as portrayed by the models, is not good," Commission Chairman Gilmore Clarke wrote in a letter to the Mint. "It needs more dignity. It may be that the position of the head – the angle at which it is placed on the background – and the shape and ending of the neck are at fault."

Keenly aware of the limited time remaining before the coin’s scheduled introduction, Lee Lawrie, a sculptor member of the Fine Arts Commission, intervened personally to offer artistic guidance. Forty years later, Gilroy Roberts (who, like Gasparro, is now deceased) described how Lawrie did it:

"With the approval of the superintendent of the Mint, John Sinnock and I took the plaster model and rode down to Maryland to Lee Lawrie’s studio. I was just an observer; John didn’t drive, so I drove him down and then stayed around while he and Mr. Lawrie worked on the model.

"We stayed for two or three days, and during that time John and Lee Lawrie worked together revising the original model. Mr. Lawrie wanted to make it more peppy – more dramatic, maybe – and for some strange reason, John had trouble at first capturing that kind of spirit. Eventually, though, with Lee Lawrie’s help, he succeeded in pepping it up – and the present dime, I think, is a very good representation. I’d say it’s pretty close to the portrait he did for the medal, but without the coat and all that."

Sinnock prepared a number of different sketches for the new coin’s reverse. Two of these portrayed female figures – a capped Liberty holding the lamp of freedom in one version, a capless girl grasping a slender torch in the other. A third design displayed a torch along with four scrolls – two on each side – representing the "Four Freedoms" about which FDR had spoken so eloquently. A fourth depicted the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, site of the United Nations Conference at which the world body came into being in 1945.

The choice was narrowed to two designs featuring a torch amid symbolic branches of laurel and oak. One of these showed a hand clutching the torch. The other – the one accepted – simply showed the torch with the branches neatly arrayed on either side. Roberts viewed this as superior coinage artwork.

"I think it’s one of the best coin designs we’ve ever had," he commented in a 1986 interview. "It took all the old standards and the classic stuff and rearranged them in a very effective manner. And we got away from the magisterial effect of fasces and things like that."

Roberts prepared the plaster model for the reverse of the dime. But, he stressed, the concept and design were entirely Sinnock’s work.

"It’s the idea that really counts," he declared. "It’s the composition, the artist’s creation – his concept – that’s really important. You can get a stonecutter to cut a portrait without any problem. But how do you arrange the elements? That’s the real trick. I modeled it, yes, but this was John’s design and he was the one who had to – and did – approve the final models."

The dime’s successful launch and wide public approval boosted Sinnock’s morale, but his health continued to deteriorate and on May 14, 1947, at the age of 59, he died at the U.S. Marine hospital on Staten Island. Even as the end drew near, he  was burnishing his legacy one last time: In his final months at the Mint, he fashioned the basic design for the Franklin half dollar. That coin made its debut in 1948, the year after his death – a posthumous tribute to the fine artistic skill of its designer.

The Roosevelt dime became an immediate mainstay in the March of Dimes campaign. By 1953, just 15 years after the first March of Dimes, the annual appeals had raised more than $50 million – and, most important, they were turning the tide in the battle against polio. Many of the dimes had been plowed into research, and one of those engaged in that work, Dr. Jonas E. Salk of the University of Pittsburgh, had developed a vaccine which showed promise of being effective in preventing the disease.

Extensive field trials were conducted in 1954. And on April 12, 1955 – the 10th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s death – a jubilant nation learned the exciting results: The Salk vaccine was safe and effective, and polio had been vanquished – trampled by millions of relentless marching dimes.

Like the March of Dimes, the Roosevelt dime has undergone major change since that breakthrough: Originally 90-percent silver, it became a silverless "sandwich-type" coin of copper-nickel "clad" base metal in 1965.

But the coin and the cause remain firmly linked in Americans’ collective consciousness, bound by the common thread of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s enthusiasm, optimism and determination.

More than 62 years have passed since FDR’s death – virtually the same length of time he was alive. But the handsome dime that bears his jaunty image provides a daily reminder of just how much he meant to the nation he served.

And his memory, like his coin, still marches on.