Saturday, September 16, 2006


The Kennedy half-dollar. [click to embiggen]

Lisa W. commented on a previous post that she had “never heard of a ‘Kennedy half-dollar.’ Cool...”

That’s not too surprising, given that Lisa is Canadian, and considerably younger than Yours Truly. The Kennedy half - and half-dollar coins in general - are virtually unknown outside the World o’ Coin Collectors these days. And, in large measure, that is the fault of the Kennedy half.

Let’s hop on the Wayback Machine and travel to 1964.

In the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a clamor arose for his memorialization on a circulating coin. Strangely, instead of selecting the Washington quarter, which had been around since 1932, the Franklin half - in circulation only since 1948 - was targeted for replacement by the new coin. And thus it was that the Kennedy half-dollar coin was created.

Half-dollars had been around since the earliest days of the Republic. Larger in diameter than the quarter-dollar (because they contained more precious metal content), halves were, at the time, made of .900 fine coinage silver: 90% silver, 10% copper. Dimes and quarters were also made of coinage silver, and their sizes reflected their relative value.

1964 was a tumultuous year for coins, which were in short supply due to a strong economy, increased use of vending machines, and (to a lesser extent) an exploding collectors’ market. Simultaneously, the price of silver was rising, to the point where the intrinsic value of the coins due to their precious metal content threatened to move above their face value.

Today, in the era of U.S. Mint webmarketing, Statehood Quarters, and seventy-’leven kinds of commemorative coins, it’s hard to imagine the adversarial relationship that existed between the Mint and the numismatic hobby in 1964. But back then, the Mint blamed the collectors for having created the coin shortage - a shortage that was exacerbated by the popularity of the Kennedy half. People salted away every Kennedy half they could get their hands on - it was an attractive coin with a bold portrait of a slain young President, and people kept them rather than spending them.

And that’s when the Treasury Department stepped in and decided to pull the silver out of circulating coins.

Henceforth, dimes and quarters would be made of a “clad” composition - a copper core, bonded to outer layers of 75% copper/25% nickel - with no silver; halves would also be “clad,” but with a silver content of 40%. (A few years later, halves moved to the same silver-free construction as the dime and quarter.) At the same time, the Mint announced that it would pull mintmarks from the coins produced in Denver, a direct slap in the face of collectors. Not only that, they announced that the sale of proof coins - specimen coins with a brilliant mirror finish, produced especially for collectors - was to be suspended indefinitely.

To make the 1964 coins even less attractive to collectors, the Mint continued to produce coins dated 1964 for a goodly part of 1965 - a break with tradition. And then they phased in the silverless coins of 1965.

Gresham’s Law states that “bad money drives out good,” and it operated with a vengeance starting in 1965. With no new silver coins being produced, people began hoarding the old ones almost immediately, and they disappeared from circulation. Soon, old friends like the familiar Liberty-Head (“Mercury”) dime and the Walking Liberty half were but memories.

Between the sentiment-driven collecting of Kennedy halves and the general hoarding of all silver coins, half-dollars vanished. Kennedy, Walking Liberty, Franklin - the design didn’t matter. Gone. And after a few years had passed, people found that they did not miss these large coins - slightly larger in diameter than a Toonie, to give a point of reference to our Canadian friends. Why use a big half-dollar when two quarters worked just as well?

The vending machine and tollbooth manufacturers seem to have agreed. You can’t use halves anymore...not in anything with a slot or change basket. Strangely, though, the Mint still cranks ’em out.

And so it is no surprise that Lisa has never heard of - or seen - a Kennedy half-dollar. The same is true for many Americans today. And - to me, at least - it is a shame.

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