USA Coin Album: The Kennedy Half Dollar - Some Observations & Recollections (Conclusion)

Posted on 7/14/2015

By the late 1970s, I’d largely lost interest in current coins of the US Mint, yet I continued to buy the annual Proof Sets and Uncirculated Sets.

The latter were not offered during 1982-83, so I acquired my coins of those years by buying the Philadelphia and Denver Souvenir Sets. These were sold, along with other Mint products, at the Old San Francisco Mint Museum. Just a few blocks from my office, it was an easy walk during lunchtime, and I made the most of it by cherrypicking the best sets. Since the quality of our coins reached their absolute nadir around that time, the Philadelphia Mint issues being especially awful, this was not an easy task. It was mostly the half dollar that determined the value of the set, so I’d make my selection on the basis of its quality alone.

The quantities of circulating half dollars coined each year varied wildly during the 1980s. This was a tacit acknowledgement that the half dollar was no longer required for general circulation. Indeed, it was coined almost exclusively for use in gambling casinos. When these operations switched to tokens in the mid 1980s, mintages declined drastically, and the 1987-P and 1987-D halves were struck solely for inclusion in the US Mint’s Uncirculated Set of that year. Unlike in 1970, when this development was a surprise bonus for those who routinely ordered the sets, in 1987 the Mint announced in advance that there would be no halves produced for circulation. The inevitable result was a huge boost in the sales of these sets.

1988 brought a new reverse hub for the Kennedy half dollar. The relief was lowered quite drastically, and this finally put an end to the characteristic weakness at the bottom of the shield seen on nearly all circulating halves made sine 1971. Other features struck up more clearly, as well, though the reverse never again had much sculptural quality. 1991 saw similar changes made to the obverse hub, JFK’s cheek being hollowed out a bit and his hair sharpened. This was ironic in that the president’s widow had requested in 1963 that sculptor Gilroy Roberts reduce the hair detail, but this fact evidently had been forgotten after nearly 30 years.

The portrait was redone again in 1995, this time making it smaller overall. The hair was again incised more deeply, and the date and lettering were reduced in both size and thickness. All of these changes were done to produce dies which lasted longer and resulted in complete strikes, but they also robbed the coin of the bold sculptural quality possessed by the original issue. The US Mint addressed this loss of artistry in its 50th Anniversary commemorative issues by returning to the Gilroy Roberts portrait of 1964.

Through all of these changes I continued to purchase the US Mint’s annual Proof Sets and Uncirculated Sets until 1999, when the addition of so many coins for the 50 States Quarter program raised the prices significantly. I’d been just going through the motions by buying modern coins for the past several years, and I decided to pull the plug on this activity. Thus, my latest Kennedy half dollars are dated 1998, though I still have the chance to view more recent ones as they come into NGC for certification.

What I haven’t seen for a very long time is one of these coins actually circulating. For some years I would buy halves from my bank for the fun of making purchases with them, and a few silver or silver-clad coins would turn up from time to time within the rolls I bought. (It seems that many people dropped the half dollars which came their way into jars as an informal savings plan, and this has been going on so long that these hoards, when finally cashed out, will often include silver pieces). Alas, even rarer today than circulating half dollars are my visits to a bank lobby, as nearly every banking activity is done with an ATM or through online payments.

I get a bit depressed when I reflect on how the mighty half dollar now serves no purpose other than to provide material for collectors. This was a meaningful coin to me as a child. It was typically the most valuable piece of currency I would hold, and it opened up so many possibilities for enjoyment when finally spent. By the age of ten I was collecting half dollars from circulation, and within two years I’d begun buying them to complete my folders. Saturday visits to the coin and stamp departments at F. W. Woolworth and The Emporium in San Francisco gave way to trips of ever greater distance, once I discovered actual coin shops that seemed to have every date and mint of every coin ever made. The half dollar has always been my favorite United States coin denomination, and I’ve collected every series within it by date and mint at some point. No longer a component of our commerce, it remains to be seen how many more years it will be struck.

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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