USA Coin Album: Franklin Half Dollars

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 9/15/2009

This month, David W. Lange tells the story of the Franklin half dollar. Its popularity has wavered over the years, but today it is a nice find for the thorough US coin collector.

The Benjamin Franklin half dollar of 1948–63 was the last coin of this denomination to circulate to any appreciable extent, and it was also the last to be minted exclusively in the traditional “coin” silver of .900 fine. Aside from proof examples, which were sold as part of complete proof sets from 1950 through 1963, this coin type was nearly ignored in its own time.

There are several reasons for this, perhaps the most important being that the coins were considered common. By more recent standards, however, there are numerous issues that had relatively low mintages, but the saving of uncirculated rolls was widespread during those years. Thus, there was little risk of any Franklin halves becoming truly rare. Speculators were especially careful to put away rolls of the lowest mintages, such as 1949-S, 1953 (P), 1955 (P) and 1958 (P). In fact, the last two were so widely hoarded in uncirculated condition that worn examples are actually scarce today, as I discovered a few years ago while attempting to assemble a complete set in circulated grades.

A deterrent to collecting this series from circulation was the coins’ high face value. I’m just old enough to remember when a kid having fifty cents in his pocket felt quite empowered. There were any number of things that could be purchased with this sum, including plastic model kits, admission to the Saturday matinee or ten packs of baseball cards (each one complete with a strip of pink chewing gum). Setting aside so much money (there are 35 coins in the series) was simply too much to ask, especially when none of the coins carried a premium in worn condition.

The design of this coin was likewise not too appealing. Even when Franklin halves were new, old Ben seemed to be bald, despite his flowing locks. The fine hairlines evident in the early issues, roughly 1948–50, had worn off of the master hub by the early 1950s, though this feature was sharpened a bit in 1960. The silly little eagle, added to the ensemble as an afterthought when someone pointed out that it was required by law, was similarly indistinct on many issues. The bird was given a makeover during 1956, but this helped only a little to improve its appeal.

The Franklin half dollar had its genesis in the administration of Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross. She held this office for a record twenty years during the presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S Truman, and she was quite a fan of Ben Franklin. Ross flirted with the idea of placing Franklin’s portrait on the dime as the Winged Head Liberty or “Mercury” type reached its statutory minimum lifespan in 1940, but the stepped up coin production of World War II pushed aside any consideration of changing designs at that time. With the end of the war, Mrs. Ross again hoped to have a new Franklin dime, but the death of President Roosevelt in 1945 led his being honored on the dime the following year (Roosevelt was indelibly linked to the March of Dimes campaign to eradicate polio).

Director Ross finally realized her dream in 1947, when she received a green light to have Chief Sculptor / Engraver John R. Sinnock prepare a Franklin half dollar. The artist simply modified the bust of Franklin he’d created in 1932 for a US Mint medal honoring the four fields of achievement in the life of Benjamin Franklin (number 648 in the Mint’s catalog). The portrait is essentially identical, aside from the coin’s lowered relief and truncated bust. For the reverse of the new half dollar Sinnock adapted his earlier design from the American Independence Sesquicentennial half dollar of 1926 featuring Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell.

John Ray Sinnock died before the models were approved, and the design was brought to completion by his successor, Gilroy Roberts. In fact, the Commission of Fine Arts never did approve the reverse design, as it objected to both the diminutive eagle and the cracked bell, but the Mint nevertheless went ahead with the coin as approved by Director Ross and Treasury Secretary John W. Snyder.

Production commenced in 1948 during the midst of a nasty, postwar economic recession. This fact, combined with a redundancy of half dollars left over from the huge mintages of 1941–45, kept the number of 1948-dated coins fairly low. San Francisco coined none at all (it hadn’t produced halves since 1946), and the Philadelphia and Denver Mints put out a combined total of just over seven million coins. In most instances a first-year-of-issue coin is produced in vast numbers, as both coin collectors and the general public seek novelties and set aside a large percentage uncirculated. Because the 1948 halves had only modest mintages, such withdrawals later caused the 1948(P) and 1948-D Franklins to become fairly scarce in circulation at a time when most other issues were readily available.

The popularity of the half dollar as a circulating unit was in decline during the sixteen years of Franklin coinage, and the abrupt replacement of this type with the John F. Kennedy half dollar ultimately spelled doom for half dollars in general. Of the 1964 issue alone, the US Mint produced nearly as many halves as it had for the entire Franklin series of 1948–63. Thereafter half dollars became coins to hoard rather than spend, and today they are coined exclusively for collectors.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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