Throughout the history of coinage here in the United States, there are a few that are seemingly universally loved. The Saint Gaudens Double Eagle, the Morgan Dollar, and Indian Head “Buffalo” Nickel all come to mind. For many collectors, the Franklin Half Dollar is also on that list. Minted from 1948 to 1963, it is one of the shorter lived coins in our history but one of the be most beloved. In fact, it is quite possible we would still be carrying Franklin Half Dollars had it not been for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The Franklin Half Dollar weighed 12.50g and had a diameter of 30.61mm. It had a thickness of 1.8mm with a reeded edge and was composed of 90% silver and 10% copper. Throughout its lifetime, the coin was struck at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mint facilities.
Background & Selection Process
To discuss the history of the Franklin Half Dollar, one must start with the subject himself and, ironically, his disdain for portraits on coins. Franklin made it clear that he was opposed to portraits on coins but rather advocated that coins should have various proverbs for the holder of the coin to reflect upon. Given the religiosity of the fledgling United States at the time, it made sense. Add to that fact that Franklin had only known coins with British royalty on it. Understandably, that would add to his disdain given the breaking away of the United States from British rule.
Now enter Mint Director Nellie Taylor Ross. Ross was a long time admirer of Franklin and had been quite open expressing the desire to have the Founding Father on a coin. It is long speculated that a medal released in 1933 by John Sinnock, the eventual designer of the Franklin Half Dollar had served as her inspiration. Ross, in an interview in 1948, acknowledged that Franklin had a disdain for having portraits on coins but this was likely driven by the face he’d only seen royalty on coins to this point. She speculated that he likely would have felt different about having a coin honoring a founder of the republic.
Like several coins of this era in the United States, the Franklin Half was born out of a desire to change the then current Walking Liberty Half Dollar. That coin had been in circulation since 1916 (you can read about it in this Coin History article) and could be changed without congressional approval after 1940. Compounding the challenge of changing coinage was World War II when demand for coinage was exceptionally high in the country. Originally, the Mint had considered putting Franklin on the Dime in 1941 but that was shelved due to the war. Indeed, at one point in the war, the Mint was considering addition one or more new denominations to coinage in an effort to meet demand. To that end, Sinnock had prepared a Franklin design for a coin should such an additional coin be added. That, of course, never happened and the designer and his designs remained on the sidelines.
After World War II, the debate of changing the Dime once again surfaced and was bantered about for several years. It seemed that Sinnock would be to redesign this coin but with the death of President Franklin Roosevelt, that opportunity soon fell to the wayside. Roosevelt, who had been closely associated with the March of Dimes, seemed a natural fit for the redesigned Dime and in 1946, the change was made.
You can read more on the Roosevelt Dime in this Coin History article.
Within the Mint itself, there was increasing calls for the Walking Liberty Half Dollar to be redesigned. Many of the Mint officials at the time felt the design of the “Walker” was dated and, importantly, it was eligible for being changed without congressional approval. At the time, only the Lincoln Cent and the Walking Liberty Half Dollar were eligible for such changes. Mint Director Ross however did not want to take on changing the Lincoln Cent given the popularity of Lincoln within American culture. Thus, effectively, only the Half Dollar was really considered for change.
In 1947, Director Ross asked Sinnock to produced a design of the Half Dollar that featured Benjamin Franklin. For Sinnock, the work was straightforward. The chief engraver took his bust of Franklin that he had designed for a medal for the Obverse. For the Reverse, he modified the design he had completed for the 1926 commemorative half dollar honoring the 150th anniversary of American independence from British rule. Unfortunately, Sinnock was not able to complete the Reverse design himself. He passed away before it was completed on May 14, 1947. Gilroy Roberts took over as Chief Engraver for the United States Mint and completed the Reverse design.
As the coin designs were going through its final reviews, the Mint officials realized that there was a key element missing to the coin: An eagle. The Coinage Act of 1873 required that, any coin in circulation with a value greater than the Dime, had to depict a Bald Eagle, the national bird. An eagle was quickly added to the right side of the Liberty Bell on the Reverse and the final designs were submitted to the Commission of Fine Arts for comment and review.
The Commission was split in its comments back to the Mint. On December 1, 1947, it stated that it had no issue or object to the Obverse of the coin. However, for the Reverse, they had plenty of issues. First, they pointed out that the eagle was “so small as to be insignificant and hardly discernible”. Given that the eagle was quite literally a last minute addition to the coin, it’s hard to argue their point. Secondly, they had concerns over the crack in the Liberty Bell on the Reverse. The Commission was concerned that it would open up the coin to derogatory statements. IN reality, that likely would have happened had they not shown the crack, offering a more realistic of the bell that resides in Philadelphia today.
Release and Production of the Franklin Half Dollar
On January 7, 1948, the Treasury of the United States issued a press release announcing the new Franklin Half Dollar. The release, which made no mention of the Commission of Fine Arts hesitations, indicate that the idea for the design had come from Director Ross and had the support and approval of Treasury Secretary Snyder. In the release, it was noted that Franklin had a reputation for being thirty and encouraged Americans to remember that spare cash could be used to purchase United States savings bonds and stamps.
As a historical side note, Franklin became the first non-President to be on a regular issue coin in the United States.
On April 29, 1948, Director Ross held a dinner party at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia where guests each received a Franklin Half Dollar along with a signed card from Ross. The public launch of the coin was the next day on April 30th at Noon Eastern in a booth on the steps of the Sub-Treasury building in New York. The launch and public perspective on the coin, however, was not without controversy.
The Joseph Stalin Theory
Conspiracy Theories are not a new thing in the 21st century. When it came to the Franklin Half Dollar, and the Roosevelt Dime before it, both had a wonderfully concocted conspiracy involving the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin. The theory was that there had been a communist infiltrator at the United States Mint due to the “JS” initials found on the Roosevelt Dime. The conspiracy folks concluded that the “JS” stood for Joseph Stalin, seeming to disregard the fact that the coin’s designer was John Sinnock who’s initials were also “JS”. The theory captured many of the public’s attention with some complaining to the Mint that the initials should be removed. The theory of course was never proven. It must be considered that, in the 1940s, the thread of communism in the United States was seen in every corner. Nevertheless, the Mint opted to have Sinnock’s initials represented as “JRS” on the Frankly Half in an effort to squelch the conspiracy theory. This, of course, did not work. People wrote to the Mint demanding to know how the Mint had discovered Joseph Stalin had a middle name (he didn’t by-the-way).
As the country moved into the 1950s and 60s, the theory seemed to have died with the national attention moving to a Cold War mentality with the U.S.S.R. and focus on the Korean and Vietnam Wars taking a higher profile.
An Abrupt End to the Franklin Half Dollar
The Mint began producing the Franklin Half in 1948 and it is possible that we would still be carrying a variation of it had it not been for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, shocking the nation and the world. Congress was no less shocked and moved with unprecedented speed to authorize a change to the Half Dollar. That authorization by Congress came on December 30, 1963, just 39 days after Kennedy’s death.
With the authorization passed, 1963 would be the last year of the Franklin Half. In total, 465,814,455 of them were struck in its 16 years of production. Additionally, 15.996 of the 465.8 million were struck in Proof condition.
Collecting the Franklin Half Dollar
Despite its relatively low production figures and short life span, collecting Franklin Halves is somewhat easy and without huge sums of money to acquire them. Even the small production 1948, 1948 and 1950 halves can be found in Mint State for under $75 in most cases. Production of the coin ramped up significantly in 1950 and remained high through 1952 before dropping throughout much of the 1950s due to a lack of demand. Indeed, the Denver Mint in 1955 and 1956 struck no Half Dollars. Coupled with the closing of the San Francisco Mint in 1955, just 2.8 million of the coins were struck that year. Still, these remain readily available in high grade condition as many people saved the coins. However, that doesn’t mean there are not some key coins in the series.
First, from a Proof coin perspective, the Cameo Proof Franklin Halves carry a premium. These Proof coins struck at the Philadelphia Mint, have a frosted surface and mirror-like fields. Next are what are called Full Bell Line coins. These coins must meet two criteria: The seven lines at the base of the bell must be fully visible and the three sips of hair to the right of Franklin’s ear on the Obverse must be fully shown and not blended together. As you can surmise, this is a difficult bar to reach and the “FBL” Franklin’s carry a much higher premium, even in the same grade of other coins.
Perhaps the most widely known error in the series is the 1955 “Bugs Bunny”. Caused by a die clash between the Obverse and Reverse dies, the impact of the Eagle’s wings on the Reverse caused a marking outside of Franklin’s mouth, giving him the appearance of having buck teeth like the cartoon character.
In 1958 and 1959, there were two types of of pieces struck in an effort to improve the quality of the strikes on the coins. Seeing the differences between these types is easy. Type-1 coins will have four tail feathers on the eagle on the Reverse. Type-2 coins will have only 3. Roughly 5-10% of the 1958 halves struck in Philadelphia
In looking at the mintage figures, there are four key dates for collectors. The 1948, 1949-S, 1953, and 1955 are all considered key due to their lower mintage figures. For example, the 1948 Franklin and just over 3 million minted while the 1949-S had just 3.74. Compare those to the production in the mid-50’s were production was well over 10 million coins.
- Breen, Walter (1988). Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-14207-6.
- Guth, Ron; Garrett, Jeff (2005). United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Atlanta, Ga.: Whitman Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7948-1782-4.
- Lange, David W. (2006). History of the United States Mint and its Coinage. Atlanta: Whitman Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7948-1972-9.