Q: Whatever happened to the 50-cent piece? It used to be as common as the quarter, but it seems like ever since it became the “Kennedy half dollar” it has disappeared. Why?
Cathy Stoltz, of Belleville
A: Just hours after John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, U.S. Mint Director Eva Adams informed Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts that serious consideration already was being given to putting the late president’s image on one of the country’s larger silver coins.
In a rarely seen display of bureaucratic speed, Adams called Roberts back on Nov. 27 to say that the project had been approved and that the president’s widow, Jacqueline, preferred her late husband replace Benjamin Franklin on the half dollar rather than George Washington on the quarter. Less than four months later, the first Kennedy halves were released to the public — which, ironically, signaled the death knell for the once popular 50-cent piece. Today, new half dollars are minted annually in quantities only to satisfy collectors, a fact experts say is unlikely to change anytime soon — if ever.
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Back on March 24, 1964, it seemed as if it would become the most popular coin of the land. When the first 70,000 Kennedy halves were released to the public that day, a line a block long formed at the windows of the Mint in Washington, D.C. Although sales were limited to 40 per customer, the supply was exhausted by the end of the day. Banks in Boston and Philadelphia also quickly limited sales, but were cleaned out by noon. According to a New York Times story, the rationing upset the head of the coin department at Gimbels because the fevered demand was cutting into his hopes of selling the coins at a premium.
But apparently most people were like my family and me. As soon as they acquired them — whether by buying a roll from the mint or in change from the supermarket — they immediately stuffed them away in a safe or coin jar.
“Despite the huge mintage of almost 425 million pieces (in 1964 alone), few ever made it into circulation,” according to Mike Sherman at the Professional Coin Grading Service in Newport Beach, Calif.
Had all things stabilized after that, the coin might have made a resurgence after the novelty wore off. But soon after the initial release came a second massive blow: the rising cost of silver. In 1964, the first Kennedy half dollars consisted of a whopping 90 percent of the precious metal. So, in addition to the coin’s sentimental value, people now were hoarding them because the value of the metal in the coin might become worth far more than its $1 face value when melted down. (A roll of these coins would yield an estimated 7 ounces of silver. Silver prices briefly hit nearly $50 an ounce on Jan. 18, 1980.)
The situation didn’t change much in 1965, even when the silver content was cut more than half to 40 percent.
“During 1965-1970 as the millions of older silver coins were quickly withdrawn from circulation, word was out that the halves still contained some silver, and they, too, were hoarded,” Sherman said. “The public is easily confused, and even thought the melt value of a 40-percent Kennedy half didn’t exceed its face value until 1974, virtually all of the 1965-1970 coins, like the 1964s, ended up in drawers in people’s homes.”
For the 1971 edition, the silver was removed entirely in favor of the current mix of 25 percent nickel surrounding a core of solid copper, but it was too late to rescue the coin, Sherman said. Still thought of as something special, people continued throwing them into drawers to be saved.
By then, too, lifestyle changes also helped doom the coin. Decades before when workers were paid by real money in a sealed envelope, a half dollar was more convenient for a paymaster to stick in than two quarters. They were also popular in slot machines and blackjack tables in Vegas.
Now, workers are paid by check — or have their salary directly deposited into a bank account. After so many years of collecting dust, the slot for half dollars in cash registers was eliminated. Vegas instituted cashless slots and welcomed credit cards. Most vending machines would not accept them despite steadily rising prices. The half dollar became like a heavy metal albatross in consumers’ pockets.
So after peaking at more than 521 million in 1976 to celebrate the country’s bicentennial (which also largely were hoarded), production for the next 15 years only once topped 50 million (as opposed to 6.5 billion quarters in 2000 and 950 million silver dollars in 2007). Finally in 2002, the Mint throw up its hands and began making only enough to satisfy collectors. In 2014 and 2015, the total was 4.6 million.
“Although I’d personally like to see the half dollar return, I’d bet against it,” Sherman said.
Dave Harper at Numismatic News is even more direct.
“The half dollar’s time is gone,” he wrote. “It should be abolished.”
When were the first U.S. half dollars minted?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: It was an amazing reversal in fortune for the Disney musical “Newsies.” Loosely based on New York City newsboys strike of 1899, the 1992 movie version was a box-office flop and was nominated for worst picture, director, supporting actor (Robert Duvall), supporting actress (Ann-Margret) and song by the Golden Raspberry folks. But when it re-emerged as a Broadway show in 2012, it garnered eight Tony nominations, including best musical. (It won for best score and choreography.)