Dancing with Dates, Part Six

Posted on 3/17/2009

This month, David W. Lange wraps up his look at 20th-century date styles with a focus on the Kennedy half dollar series.

The Kennedy half dollar series is the last in my study of 20th-century date styles, since the coinage of dollars was too sporadic and involves too many types to establish a meaningful comparison.

Produced annually since 1964, only the date 1975 is lacking within the Kennedy series, as the coinage of that year was divided between pieces dated 1974 or dual-dated 1776–1976. The date on the 1964 halves was sculpted by the coin’s obverse designer, chief engraver of the US Mint, Gilroy Roberts. Naturally, these numerals conform in style to the rest of the coin’s obverse lettering. Since that time, the basic style of date numerals has not varied much, though one obvious trend in all USA coins during that time is that the dates have become smaller and are placed further from the rim. These changes were made to reduce die erosion and thus achieve more strikes with each die.

On 1964 halves, numeral 1 features a prominent serif at either side of its base and a downward slanting serif at upper left, this ending in a distinct point at both its top and bottom. This same configuration has remained to the present day, but with some minor modifications along the way. The bicentennial coins featured a slight curvature to the upper serif. In 1983 a new hub appeared, and henceforth the numeral 1 was noticeably thicker, while its lower serifs had obvious fillets to them. These serifs nearly disappeared beginning with the coinage of 1992. The upper serif regained its 1976 curvature in 1987, only to lose it again in 1995.

The numeral 2 did not appear on this coin type until 1972, and it has varied only in small ways since then. The rounded tip to its curve became pointed in 1992 and was somewhat longer in that year alone. Its base had a slanted end in 1972 and 1992, with a blunt end in 1982, and in this year the figure was narrower overall. The figure 3 has been remarkably consistent in style, though its lower curve was longer in 1973, while both curves were of equal length in 1983 and 1993. The thickness of this numeral has diminished with each successive appearance, this also reflecting the Mint’s trend toward lower relief and less metal displacement at striking.

Because of its relatively complex shape, the numeral 4 has varied most over the past century for each coin series studied thus far, and the Kennedy half dollar series is no exception. In 1964 this numeral was quite graceful, its crossbar being placed low and close to the serifs at either side of the figure’s base. The top ended in a slanted point, while the crossbar ended in a slightly slanted upper serif. Ten years later, this figure was a bit squat, its crossbar raised to nearly the midpoint of the vertical member. The top and left of the 4 were both squared off, while the figure was broadened overall. The slanted serif of the crossbar remained, with a lower serif added to it. In 1984 this numeral was a bloated replica of the 1974 edition, though it did have a slight raking to the top and left ends. A smaller version of this same 4 was used in 1994, but the lower serif of the crossbar was deleted.

Numeral 5 has retained its same basic configuration, but the Mint’s interpretation has varied considerably over the years. The style of 5 so familiar on 1950s USA coinage was utilized in 1965. A well proportioned figure, having a slightly hanging tail, gave way to an awkward one, featuring a slightly upward sweeping tail, when the 5 next appeared in 1985. The horizontal element of this numeral was quite short this time, making the balance look clumsily oversized. A miniature of this same figure was used in 1995 but with the tail now even more upswept.

By definition, numeral 6 is always an inverted 9, and this has been true of Kennedy half dollars. In 1966, 1986 and 1996, this figure’s loop was nearly but not quite closed. For the bicentennial edition, an entirely different style of date was employed, and this had a distinctly closed loop to the 6. The numeral 7 has shown almost no variation over the years of this coin series. The leftward-slanted serif to the horizontal element employed for most years was squared off and pointed directly downward in 1987, in which year this numeral was also arched more than usual so that its base sat vertically rather than diagonally.

The numeral 8 is always the least interesting figure in the dates of 20th Century USA coins, and this is true also of the Kennedy half dollar series. Symmetrical, stacked circles, the upper one slightly smaller than the lower, characterize all 8s for this series. Only the thickness with which the figure is sculpted and its overall dimensions have varied slightly. Exactly the same may be said of numeral 9, as this has retained the same style since 1964 and is always consistent with an inverted 6. Only for the bicentennial coins dated 1776–1976 was this figure of a unique style, as were all the numerals for that distinctive coinage. It’s likely that the obverse model for the bicentennial half dollar was sculpted by Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro, as the numerals appear familiar from the Eisenhower dollar of his own design. Numeral 0 likewise varied not at all in the years it was used, appearing always as a simple oval of constant shape.

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