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Half Dollar a Result of One Fateful Day
By Paul M. Green, Numismatic News
November 07, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Nov. 22 is a date that is indelibly etched in my memory. A terrible event occurred on that date in 1963 in Dallas, Texas. It began a chain of events that is still unfolding for coin collectors.

For anyone who lived through the events of 1963 and then 1964, it will never be difficult to remember the first Kennedy half dollar. It is a reminder of a particular time.

Being a student of history even in my teens, I was familiar with the old pictures depicting the assassinations of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfied and William McKinley, but those old drawings were from another age and I certainly never anticipated that one day I would live though another of those terrible moments in the nation’s history.

Certainly sitting in English class that day in 1963 the idea that it would be a day that could never be forgotten would have been an unlikely thought, but then there was the announcement that we were to go to our homerooms and await further instructions. It seemed like some type of drill and it was an age where we had lived through assorted drills in the event of a nuclear attack and other threats.

A surprise drill was not unusual for a kid growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s. However, the next intercom announcement that the President had been shot was clearly not a drill. There are no drills for something like that.

The last announcement of the day was that the President had died and that we were to return to our homes in a quiet and respectful manner. There we were to await further instructions as to when school would reopen after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Of course, school officials were doing their best in a situation they were not at all prepared to handle. Telling Middletown, N.Y., junior high students how to walk home has got to be one of the great cases of hoping kids will act normally. But in any school being told that vacation has just begun is not the way to keep things quiet in the streets outside. Things were somewhat confused. None of us was ready to be sent home. That meant hasty arrangements. Lynne Cohen had to find her shoes. Someone had to wake up Billy Gunther. As we assembled in the usual small group for the long trek home the question on every mind was now what?

John Blumental and I agreed to call the next day to try to straighten out our previous plans to split up a large political campaign button collection we had just mortgaged ourselves to the hilt to buy. We wanted to split up the Eugene V. Debs and Teddy Roosevelt buttons, but figured we were definitely in uncharted territory in terms of what things might be like in our homes. After all, no one really had any experience of what was likely to happen in modern America when the President was killed.

I got my first taste quickly as my house, except for sobs, was deadly quiet. My dad, who had not even voted for Kennedy, was in tears. That was really unusual. As an 8th Air Force veteran with the Distinguish Flying Cross, losing friends was hardly new to him, but to be so moved by the loss of a President whose election he had worked against was probably the best indication of how John F. Kennedy and the whole Kennedy family had become a part of nearly every family in America.

Just as Franklin D. Roosevelt with his famous Fireside Chats had become something like a family member to many who had no hope during the Great Depression, or who had faced the deadly consequences of World War II, President Kennedy and his family had become part of almost every American family. He was the first President to be seen virtually every night on TV.

My father was crying as much as anything over the two Kennedy children and their growing up without a father. That was how close TV had made Americans to the First Family.

For months afterwards, the nation was in a daze. The holiday season seemed to be black and no one would go through the season without some tribute to the fallen President.

The Congress was taking action on its own tribute. Naturally, there was some uncertainty, but the government worked remarkably fast. On Nov. 27, 1963, with the presidential funeral just completed Mint Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts was told to start work on a Kennedy half dollar.

It was a bold decision as the design of the half dollar could not be changed without congressional action as the Franklin half dollar had only been in use for 15 years following its 1948 adoption. That meant that the Treasury secretary could not use his statutory powers to change the design to Kennedy because this power applied only to designs that had been used for a minimum of 25 years.

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The Congress would have to approve the change and there was only a month left in the year in which to act. The votes, however, were assumed, as no one was going to vote against honoring a President who was gunned down on the streets of Dallas.

But that didn’t mean the Congress would run roughshod over its procedural rules. It took until the closing hours of the legislative session to approve the measure authorizing a Kennedy half dollar.

Neither Roberts, nor his assistant Frank Gasparro who did the reverse design, waited for the law to pass. To have done so would have been to delay the new design. It simply had to be ready.

In fact, the design was ready by the time Congress acted as Roberts had gone with Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon to get the reaction of the Kennedy family.

That meeting might have been at best difficult and at worst tense as the Kennedy family while having no problem with the designs they were shown were more interested in a half-length figure of the late President. This presented a problem. If Mint workers were to get proofs ready on time and were not given the dies immediately, they would not have had anything to do and there would be a delay in the proof issue. Collectors would not be happy with a delay.

There simply was not time for preparation of a new design. The Kennedy family apparently grasped the situation and relented, making only minor changes to the designs as prepared. Dillon was then able of officially approve them on Dec. 27, 1963, four days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the congressional measure into law.

Proof dies were delivered Jan. 2, 1964, while business strike production was pushed ahead at high speed.

At Denver production of circulation strikes began in late January and Philadelphia followed about a week later.

An official ceremony to mark the striking of the first coins was held Feb. 11, 1964, but by then the two mints were already at work trying to build up what was thought to be a significant stockpile for the first public release.

By the time the stockpile grew to 26 million pieces, the first public release was made. The stockpiled coins were not even close to being enough. The lines were in some cases hours long and in our local bank a maximum of two coins per customer was enforced to try to spread the thin supply. In the streets the new Kennedy half was selling for a dollar and in Europe they were $5 each.

It was simply a case where seemingly everyone had to have a new Kennedy half dollar as well as extra supplies for their children and potential grandchildren. The coin release was like achieving some sort of closure on a national nightmare. It may well stand the test of time as one of the most unique receptions in the history of any new coin.

The popularity of the 1964 Kennedy half dollars would be followed by an almost immediate turn away from the new half dollars. This had nothing to do with grief or politics but a developing national coin shortage.

The U.S. Treasury controlled the price of silver, but it was running out of the metal. The public knew the officially pegged price could not last, so they hoarded silver coins. For the entire year of 1964, the official price of the metal was $1.293 per troy ounce. It could not go higher or the value of the silver in a Morgan or Peace silver dollar would exceed face value.

To slow the silver drain and defend the official price, the government sought relief in the form of using less as spelled out in the Coinage Act of 1965, which was signed in July of that year.

While the silver content of the dime and the quarter was completely eliminated, for the half dollar it was only reduced from .900 fine to .400 fine.

There was a peculiar notion at the time that the nation needed a prestige coin made of at least some silver so if anyone noticed how American coins were being debased, officials could point to the half dollar as some sort of consolation prize.

Further, mintmarks were eliminated in the belief that it would stop collectors from collecting as many coins. Theoretically this would reduce the number of coins saved by half.

The attitude of collectors in 1965 was they had their 1964 Kennedy half dollars and the government could keep their cheap imitations of later years. This was part of the general disdain for all clad coinage.

The change in the composition did help the Treasury relieve enough pressure on silver supplies that it was able to keep the official price in effect until part way through 1967, when the price was freed and market trading began.

Silver rose dramatically to $2.17, confirming the wisdom of the people who had hoarded coins, but they could not profit immediately because a ban was placed on melting them.

So grief, greed and souvenir hunting played out using Kennedy half dollars.

When all was said and done, Philadelphia produced 277,254,766 1964-dated Kennedy half dollars of .900 fine silver and Denver’s output was 156,205,446. The combined total exceeded the output of any of the 40-percent silver half dollars, thougt the 295,046,978 mintage for the mintmarkless 1967 coin was an eye opener.

Collectors did indeed save fewer of the 40-percent silver half dollars as desired by the government, but there is no way to quantify this statement. Certainly times in the numismatic publishing business got much harder as the enthusiasm for collecting coins seemed to have been debased as much as the half dollar was in 1965.

Collectors, were down but not out. They began to regain their lost enthusiasm when proof sets and mintmarks returned in 1968.

However, the end was coming for the 40-percent silver half dollar. It lasted only through the 1970 coinage, but the handwriting was on the wall earlier.

Only Denver struck half dollars in 1968. Almost 247 million were struck. In 1969, Denver’s output of halves fell by half to roughly 130 million.

Then the government pulled a fast one. After the annual order period for the 1970 mint sets ended, the government announced it would strike half dollars only for inclusion in those sets.

Naturally, prices of the sets went up when they were released and collectors who didn’t want 40 percent silver half dollars at all were suddenly riled that they did not get their share.

In legislation passed at the end of 1970, the 40-percent composition was abolished. It made a brief return for the special collector coins issued for the Bicentennial in 1976. The 90-percent composition returned in the silver proof sets that have been struck since 1992.

However, as 1970 ended, we did not know this was coming. It looked like silver was gone for good from the half dollar and the rest of the national coinage.

Because silver had hit a high of $2.565 an ounce in 1968, hard money advocates were predicting even higher prices to come. This did not happen right away, but the long-term trend seemed clear enough that even the 40-percent silver halves became the objects of hoarding. After all, there is no risk of loss from hoarding a coin. It will always be worth face value.

This meant that the 40-percent coins that were reviled by collectors in 1965 were being tucked away all around the country after 1970.

Hoarders were once again rewarded as silver peaked at $6.70 in 1974 and an even higher $50 in 1980.

But a funny thing happened. All of this sentimentality about the half dollars caused people to stop spending them. Hoarding made people stop spending them. Half dollars simply disappeared from general use and in the 21st century are made solely for the purpose of being sold to collectors.

Because of its strange history, the Kennedy half dollar series can be seen as one that is like no other. It will take the arrival of another generation of collectors without memories of that fateful day in 1963 to really look at these coins simply as objects with a specific design, composition and mintage.

Sentimentality goes only so far. Prices of the Kennedy series are really rather cheep, keying off silver content or face value for most issues.

There are exceptions. In 1982 and 1983 no mint sets were produced and collectors by then had lost the habit of saving the coins. The result is somewhat higher prices for coins of those two years.

Half dollars were struck only for mint sets again in 1987 as was the case in 1970, but over time because there was no silver content perhaps, these coins are no differently prices than the issues of surround years.

There has been talk since the late 1960s that the half dollar should be abolished. This is almost the entire lifetime of the Kennedy half dollar. Is the fact that the coin continues to be produced a tribute to the Kennedy half’s subject – who would want to disrespect a fallen leader by abolishing it – or is it simply inertia? What was done will continue to be done? We cannot know what the future holds for the Kennedy half dollar. We can only know what the coin has meant to millions of Americans who lived through the events of 1963. These memories come alive every year on the anniversary date.

This means a coin that so many so desperately wanted back in 1964 will continue to have a very large potential audience of collectors, but the supply of date after date is extremely limited. If new collectors should seek to fill out a Kennedy set including the many proof-only and silver proof-only issues, there will simply not be an adequate supply. The same can be said of the many business strikes that were not saved over the years.

Commerce might have lost the Kennedy half dollar, many collectors might have ignored it for much of its life, but that does not mean that a time will not come when the history, precious metal content and scarcity of some of the issues will not combine to give it enough of a boost that many will wonder why they did not put a set together while it was out of the limelight.

Editor’s note: Next year’s 50th anniversary offerings by the U.S. Mint could be the catalyst to get this reaction going.

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