USA Coin Album: The San Francisco Mint Half Dollars of 1933

Posted on 2/9/2016

The US Mint produced only one silver coin for circulation in 1933 — an oasis of silver coinage in the midst of a drought

It’s rare that I devote an entire column to a single coin issue, but there are certain United States coins that stand out for their novelty and collector appeal. Such an entry is the San Francisco half dollar of 1933, the only silver coin produced for circulation that year by the U. S. Mint.

The paucity of USA coins dated 1933 may be explained by the severe economic crisis gripping the nation and the world at the time. While there had been numerous financial panics in American history, only the years 1930-33 have come to be labeled the “Great Depression.” In fact, the economic recovery that began in 1934 was anemic, and yet another recession set in during 1937-38. Nevertheless, 1933 is viewed as the nadir of American prosperity, and there was so little money changing hands that the need for additional coins was almost non-existent.

Coin production had begun to decline in 1930, shortly after the stock market crash of October, 1929. This was most pronounced at the Denver Mint, and the agricultural Midwest had already been in a slump for the past several years. The only 1930-D coinage was in cents, always the most universally needed entry. San Francisco coined cents through quarter dollars, but in smaller numbers than previously. It also struck gold eagles and double eagles, but these had no bearing on the supply of coins seen by the public, as they already commanded a slight premium over face value and were either shipped overseas or held in reserve. At the Philadelphia Mint coinage figures were higher in 1930 than at the western facilities, but still way down from 1929. All current denominations were issued, with the exceptions of half dollars and gold coins.

By 1931 there existed very little demand for additional coins, those produced in the booming years 1916-20 and 1923-29 being quite sufficient to handle the lessened commercial activity. Excluding the unseen gold denominations, the only coins struck that year were relatively small numbers of cents and dimes at all three mints, plus just over a million 1931-S nickels. In 1932 the only coins needed for circulation were small mintages of cents from the Philadelphia and Denver Mints (many of these coins lingered in storage for the next couple of years, much to the frustration of collectors seeking examples). That summer, all three mints struck the new Washington quarter as a circulating commemorative, but the demand for them in commerce was almost non-existent. Not until 1934 did they begin to be released by banks in quantity.

By 1933 activity at all U. S. Mint facilities was so slow that their combined employee rosters had fallen to 392 persons from the 687 of just five years earlier. Philadelphia coined only cents, eagles and double eagles, while Denver’s output was limited to a modest production of cents and the 5,250 Oregon Trail halves struck in July.

By all rights the San Francisco Mint should have produced no coins at all during 1933, yet it ended up striking a generous 1,786,000 half dollars of the regular type (what prompted this demand is not recorded in surviving documents, yet San Francisco more than doubled that production in 1934, so they need must have been real). Coinage commenced October 27, with a total of 110,000 pieces delivered by the coiner through the end of that month. Deliveries continued daily (excluding weekends) through December 21. This suggests that the work was performed with just a single press producing an average of around 45,800 coins per day.

A clue as to why so many half dollars were coined may be found in the fact that the San Francisco Mint had been the only one to strike half dollars for circulation on a recurring basis after 1921. Philadelphia struck no halves 1922-33, and during that same period Denver made half dollars only in 1929. Clearly the western states embraced half dollars more than did the rest of the nation. The demand for additional coins that built up during the final quarter of 1933 was thus not the fluke that it might seem to collectors.

1933-S half dollars are notable for their excellent luster and bold strikes. Typically they are sharper than most issues in this popular coin series. Indeed, they would make ideal subjects for the type collector, were it not for their relatively high cost in the upper grades. A fair number were saved in Mint State, and such coins are not truly rare. Even so, the vast majority went into circulation at or near their time of coining and remained there for decades. By 1960 this was a “keeper” in any grade, so the surviving population of heavily worn examples is high.

Despite its generous mintage, the 1933-S half dollar has not revealed any collectable varieties. Such a quantity would have required at least half a dozen die pairs, but to my knowledge no one has attempted to identify the individual dies. This issue has always fascinated me as the only silver coined for circulation in that dreadful year of unemployment and despair. It survives as a historic memento of truly hard times.

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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