Franklin Half Dollar History
The Franklin half dollar is a coin that was struck by the United States Mint (“Mint”) from 1948 to 1963. The fifty-cent piece pictures Founding Father Benjamin Franklin on the obverse and the Liberty Bell on the reverse. A small eagle was placed to the right of the bell to fulfill the legal requirement that half dollars depict the figure of an eagle. Produced in 90 percent silver with a reeded edge, the coin was struck at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mints.
Mint director Nellie Tayloe Ross had long admired Franklin, and wanted him to be depicted on a coin. In 1947, she instructed the Mint’s chief engraver, John R. Sinnock, to prepare designs for a Franklin half dollar. Sinnock’s designs were based on his earlier work, but he died before their completion. The designs were completed by Sinnock’s successor, Gilroy Roberts. The Mint submitted the new designs to the Commission of Fine Arts (“Commission”) for its advisory opinion. The Commission disliked the small eagle and felt that depicting the crack in the Liberty Bell would expose the coinage to jokes and ridicule. Despite the Commission’s disapproval, the Mint proceeded with Sinnock’s designs.
After the coins were released in April 1948, the Mint received accusations that Sinnock’s initials “JRS” on the cutoff at Franklin’s shoulder were a tribute to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. No change was made, with the Mint responding that the letters were simply the artist’s initials. The coin was struck regularly until 1963; beginning in 1964 it was replaced by the Kennedy half dollar, issued in honor of the assassinated President, John F. Kennedy. Though the coin is still legal tender, its face value is greatly exceeded by its value to collectors or as silver.
Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross had long been an admirer of Benjamin Franklin, and wished to see him on a coin. In 1933, Sinnock had designed a medal featuring Franklin, which may have given her the idea. Franklin had opposed putting portraits on coins; he advocated putting proverbs on coins about which the holder could profit through reflection. In a 1948 interview, Ross noted that Franklin only knew of living royalty on coins, and presumably would feel differently about a republic honoring a deceased founder. Indeed, Franklin might have been more upset at the reverse design: as numismatic writer Jonathan Tepper noted, “Had Benjamin Franklin known that he would be appearing on a half dollar with an eagle, he most likely would have been quite upset. He detested the eagle, and numismatic lore has it that he often referred to it as a scavenger. Given the practical man that he was, Franklin proposed the wild turkey as our national bird.”