knowyourphrase.com - Common Phrases and Idioms - Meanings and Origins
Anything that is very cheap and adundant in quantity; something easily acquired.
The dime, or "dismes" as it was called in the 18th century, began being produced in the 1790s. These coins were first created using mostly silver and small amounts of copper. The coins were made small to keep their value higher than the materials needed to create them. Indeed, if dimes were any bigger, their cost would have exceeded their overall worth.
According to Wikipedia: "From 1796 to 1837, dimes were composed of 89.24 percent silver and 10.76 percent copper." Due to the Coinage Act of 1965, dime's were no longer made with any silver content, but instead were composed of 75% copper and 25% nickel. This made them cheaper to produce.
But enough about the history of this tiny coin! Considering the dime was produced in the 1790s, it would make sense for the phrase to originate sometime after. It's likely that the origins for this phrase derive from a time where ordinary items were commonly bought with nothing more than a single dime.
For instance, in the 1800s, there were a number of newspapers that mentioned how certain foods were available for the price of, literally, a dime a dozen. For an example, we can look at the Galveston Daily News, a newspaper published in 1866. It has a line that reads:
"The San Antonio Ledger says the city is well stocked with peaches at a dime a dozen."
From what I could find, it would appear that sometime later in the early 20th century is when the idiom developed its figurative meaning of "something that's cheap or common." The Sandusky Register from 1937, for example, uses the phrase in a figurative way:
"Smiles were a dime a dozen in the Yankee clubhouse. Even Colonel Ruppert, owner of the club, was so stated he went from player to player shaking hands."
* Hugs were a dime a dozen at our family reunion since everyone was so happy to see one another.
* These antique dinner plates you bought online are not rare, and to be quite frank, they are sold for a dime a dozen down the street.
Note: Tracking the origins of popular sayings is tough stuff! Usually, you can find these idioms written down in old books, poems, or newspapers. However, keep in mind that just because they are found from these sources doesn't necessarily mean that they orginated from there. Typically, the origins will be even older than these recordings, but they will still be quoted to give you an idea on how long a phrase has been in use.
Also of note: the origins of an idiom are not always clear, and in these cases, the popular theories surrounding them will be provided. Sometimes, even I'll throw in a plausible guess as to how it may have formed. At the end of the day, hopefully you, the reader, will have a clearer understanding of the phrase's definition, some interesting info on how the saying possibly originated, and an indication on how far back in history a saying goes.