JFK Half Dollar History
In May 1969, the Treasury sought authorization to eliminate the half dollar’s silver content, changing it to the same copper-nickel clad composition as the dime and quarter. The Treasury also sought approval to strike base-metal dollar coins, which would fill a need for gaming tokens in Western casinos. Former president Dwight Eisenhower had died recently, and there was discussion of placing Eisenhower’s portrait on the dollar. The Treasury hoped that with the removal of the silver content, the coin would cease to be hoarded and again circulate. Despite the support of President Richard Nixon, some Republicans in the House of Representatives initially scuttled the legislation, disliking the idea of putting Eisenhower on a base metal coin. The dispute dragged on for over a year before Nixon signed a bill on December 31, 1970 which authorized the Eisenhower dollar and eliminated silver from the JFK half dollar. As a result of the delay, in 1970 non-proof half dollars were only made in Denver and released solely in mint sets. With a mintage of 2.1 million the 1970-D Kennedy is considered the “key” to the series, although enough were produced to keep prices modest. The Mint did not announce that 1970 half dollars would not be struck for circulation until after mint set ordering had closed.
By the time silver was eliminated from the half dollar, it had been out of circulation for so long that banks had eliminated the slot for the denomination from machines. The Mint anticipated a comeback for the denomination, but in July 1971, Mint Director Mary Brooks disclosed that the Treasury was holding 200 million of the new base metal half dollars, as commercial banks expressed little interest in ordering them. “I can’t understand the population. They’re not using them.” According to Brooks, most of the over one billion Kennedy half dollars containing silver had been hoarded by the public. Brooks theorized that because the silver Kennedy half dollar never circulated much and few half dollars were struck in 1970 in anticipation of the authorization to eliminate silver, the public had become accustomed to not seeing the half dollar in trade. Brooks suggested, “If the country knew there were plenty of them around, they’d probably start hoarding them, too.”
On March 5, 1973, Brooks announced that the Mint would be soliciting new reverse designs for the half dollar and dollar to commemorate the 1976 United States Bicentennial. On October 18, President Nixon signed Public Law 93-127, which provided for new reverse designs for the quarter, half dollar, and dollar. The designs were to be emblematic of the Bicentennial era. The Mint announced a competition open to all American sculptors. Seth G. Huntington’s design depicting Independence Hall was selected for the half dollar. All half dollars struck in 1975 and 1976 bore the double date 1776–1976 on the obverse and Huntington’s design on the reverse. Over 521 million Bicentennial half dollars were struck for circulation.
Following the high mintage of the Bicentennial piece, the number of pieces struck per year declined. However, in 1979, Mint Director Stella B. Hackel indicated that the Mint would continue to strike them. “We really don’t think many half dollars are being used in commerce. They do go somewhere, though, so someone must want them.” By then, more than 2.5 billion JFK half dollars had been struck, more than all previously struck half dollars combined. The New York Times numismatic columnist Ed Reiter suggested that hoarding had continued even into the base-metal era, accounting for the shortage of pieces in commerce. The late 1970s saw the destruction of many early JFK half dollars, as high silver prices caused extensive melting for the metal content.
The coin continued to be struck through the remainder of the twentieth century, and mintage numbers remained relatively steady in both the Philadelphia and Denver mints until 1987, a year in which no half dollars were struck for circulation; the Treasury had accumulated a two-year supply of the pieces, making further production unncessary. Demand for half dollars dropped, and casinos (where they were commonly used) increasingly began producing fifty cent tokens to use in place of the coins. With mintage numbers remaining low, beginning in 2002, the JFK half dollar ceased to be struck for general circulation. Rolls and bags of the current year’s pieces may be purchased from the Mint, at a premium above face value.