The first Franklin halves were minted in 1948, over 150 years after the great statesman's death
"One of this country's beloved immortals, Benjamin Franklin, is being brought out of honored retirement to play a prominent new role in the drama of everyday life," the Treasury Department said January 6, 1948. "Franklin's likeness will soon appear on a brand-new half dollar of regular issue..."
Secretary of the Treasury John W. Snyder became the proud owner of the first two Franklin half dollars struck. Collectors and the general public had to wait several months to share in the excitement. Thanks to the press release, though, they knew what to expect: "A design for the new coin, recommended by Nellie Tayloe Ross, director of the Mint, has received the Secretary's enthusiastic approval. Lending it distinction will be not only Franklin's wise and kindly features but also an impressive representation of another 'great' of American history, the Liberty Bell.
"The coin is expected to be ready for distribution from the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco Mints in about two or three months. Only two specimens have been struck so far. Secretary Snyder said he had shown the coin to President Truman, and reported that the President was much pleased with it.
"Ben Franklin was many things to many men, but he never lost an opportunity to preach the virtues of thrift. His face on the new half dollar will serve as a potent reminder, so the Secretary hopes, that thrifty financial management is as important to individuals and to society today as it was in Franklin's time. Specifically, the secretary thinks it will remind everyone that an excellent thing to do with spare half dollars and other spare coins these days is to buy savings bonds and stamps.
"Mrs. Ross, the Mint director, said that coinage of half dollars of the old design, introduced in 1916, has been stopped at all Mints, in anticipation of the introduction of the new Franklin-Liberty Bell coin.
"Mrs. Ross envisaged several years ago a new half dollar honoring Franklin and the Liberty Bell. The 1916 design became eligible for replacement in 1941, under the law authorizing changes in the design of a coin of regular issue not oftener than every 25 years. The late John R. Sinnock, engraver of the Mint, was the artist who gave the idea sculptural form.
"For the obverse of the design Mr. Sinnock used a composite study of Franklin's face in full profile. The study was prepared from a variety of portraits of Franklin. It is a slight modification of a Franklin profile used for a medal issued by the Mint in 1933.
"The Liberty Bell representation on the reverse of the coin was adapted by Mr. Sinnock from one which he modeled for a commemorative half dollar issued for the Sesquicentennial of American Independence in 1926. The bell is suspended from its familiar wooden beam, with the time-honored crack in the bell discernible. The lettering 'E Pluribus Unum' is inscribed at one side of the bell, and the American eagle appears at the other.
"The initials on the obverse are those with which Mr. Sinnock signed his coin and medal designs.
"Franklin will join a very select company when the coin goes into circulation. Only four persons before him have had their portraits chosen for use on coins of regular issue of the federal government. Lincoln's head appears on the one-cent piece of 1909, Jefferson's on the nickel of 1938, Washington's on the quarter of 1932, and Franklin D. Roosevelt's on the dime of 1946. Faces used on all other regular issue coins have been either portraits of Liberty or of the American Indian.
"Mrs. Ross said none of the Franklin-Liberty Bell half dollars would be released until a sufficient supply has been minted for simultaneous distribution all over the country. This will require several weeks."
Franklin disapproved the use of portraits on coins. Instead, he advocated the substitution of proverbs profitable for human reflection.
Little did he realize that his own portrait would serve as an inspiration to millions of Americans!
On April 29, 1948, the eve of nationwide distribution, the Franklin half dollar made its debut at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Two hundred guests attended a reception and dinner. Each guest received a place card to which was affixed one of the coins. Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross autographed the cards.
"Any alteration in the physical aspect of one of our coins is quite a serious responsibility," Ross said. "Most people probably pay little attention to the details of any of them, but let an innovation be proposed and it becomes, at once, a matter of intimate, personal interest to almost everybody. And well it may be -- for after a new design is impressed upon a coin and it is once launched, it goes on and on into circulation until it is too worn for use."
In a radio talk, Ross had said that once the new Franklin half dollar was released the public must accept it, like it or not. She had in mind the legal restraint against frequent changes of design, but a published letter charged her with being a typical federal bureaucrat, arrogantly snapping her fingers in the face of the public.
At the commemorative dinner, Ross said: "The first concern of us all, the public, and certainly of officials directly concerned, when a change is determined upon, is that the design to be adopted shall be worthy a place on a United States coin. It must have artistic merit; it must have meaning. That is, it must tell a worthwhile story in its symbolism and historic suggestion."
Ross insisted that Mint engravers produced better designs than outside artists. "We all know that the history of ancient civilizations is, in considerable degree, traceable through coins that have been handed down by people who had lived and died centuries before the advent of the printing press," she said. "Needless to say, it is imperative that the devices, characters and lettering on a coin design be so developed and arranged as to be amenable to the coinage process.
"Only to a sculptor of recognized skill should therefore be entrusted the task of producing a coin design. The mere fact of one's having attained fame as a sculptor gives no assurance that he can produce a design satisfactory for use on metal, in bas-relief. Some famous artists are shown, by Mint records, to have made dismal failures in that direction. Best results, I mention in passing, are to be expected from Mint sculptors who know something of the exigencies of the coinage process.
"A design may be perfectly beautiful in a clay model, the size of a dinner plate, and may have been executed by an eminent sculptor, but when reduced to the size of a coin, be lacking in distinction, or be unadaptable to coinage."
Legal restrictions also affected the design. Ross said: "At best, the artist's product meets with many vicissitudes from the time of its appearance in the clay model until it finds its place on the little round of metal in the guise of a coin. Mint experts feel that they also, along with it, go through many vicissitudes in their effort to bring the artist's concept into harmony with legal requirements with respect to size and weight, and with the mechanics of coinage. That, as a rule, is a difficult task. The 'ironing out of the bugs,' as they say in the Mint, calls for good headwork aplenty, and for most meticulous handwork also.
"The law itself prescribes the weight and content of a coin, as well as certain legends and characters it must bear. The design therefore, must permit such flow of metal as will produce the correct weight and size. Thickness must be taken into account. The relief of the dominant details must be high enough to produce a handsome, clear-cut effect, but if slightly too high here or there, in relation to the outside rim, or in relation of one side to the other, rubbing and rocking will result, which prevents perfect stacking and perfect packaging."
Delays in the release of a coin were to be expected. "As a rule it is not until the design is reduced and impressed upon the working dies and not until they are subjected to experimentation that flaws in the design (from the minting standpoint) reveal themselves," Ross said. "Sometimes the models have to go back to the artist -- more often Mint experts, in collaboration with the artist, make necessary alterations in the detail. They are not, as a rule, evident in the finished coin.
"The reason is now clear, I hope, why we cannot announce far in advance the exact date a newly-designed coin will be ready to leave the Mint and start on its way into circulation."
The Franklin half dollar was Ross' pet project. "You may be wondering how it came about that the portrait of Benjamin Franklin found its place upon the 50-cent piece together with a replica of the Liberty Bell," she said. "For several years I had harbored the hope that during my tenure in the Mint these two features might be incorporated in design for one of our coins. From time to time, letters have come into my office urging the use of Franklin's portrait on the one-cent piece; probably because of his identity with the maxim 'A penny saved is a penny made.' You will agree, I believe, that the 50-cent piece, being larger, and of silver, lends itself much better to the production of an impressive effect."
The design of the half dollar had been ready for years. Ross explained: "During the war it appeared for a time that the addition of one or more denominations might be required to ease the demand for one-cent pieces -- the enormous production of which under pressure of demand, was straining the coinage capacity of the Mint. The necessity did not materialize.
"In order to be ready, however, for any contingency, we assigned to our highly skilled sculptor in the Mint, Mr. Sinnock, the task of evolving a new design, to embody a likeness of Franklin and a representation of the Liberty Bell. That design was in readiness for the 50-cent piece. I mention with sorrow that Mr. Sinnock's death occurred one year ago.
"When, after the war, the extraordinary pressure of work upon the Mint had eased, we determined that the half dollar should be given a 'new look' -- it having worn its old attire since the year 1916. We resolved that the figure of Liberty, with her flowing robes on the obverse and the eagle on the reverse, should give place to Franklin and the Liberty Bell; assuming, of course, the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury. This, happily, was readily forthcoming with his expression of pleasure in the choice of design."
But there was a problem. The coinage law of 1873 specified that silver coins in denominations greater than a dime bear the figure of an eagle. "What could be a representation of an eagle but an eagle itself?" Ross asked. "We tried to persuade ourselves that the eagle was supposed to represent strength and freedom, and that the Liberty Bell would suffice as a representation thereof. But in the end we decided that discretion was the better part of valor and we had better put it on to assure conformity with the law.
"Accordingly, Mr. (Gilroy) Roberts, our capable sculptor at the Mint, very cleverly, and with pleasing effect, we think, added a small eagle to the right of the bell to balance 'E Pluribus Unum' on the left of it."
Regarding the Liberty Bell, Ross said: "To me it is a soul-stirring thought that on this coin it will go out to the four corners of our country into the hands of practically every American. As one largely responsible for its being on the coin I express the ardent hope that it may be a constant reminder to us all how blest we are to lived in this land of liberty..."
However, not everyone liked the Franklin half dollar. On December 1, 1947, Gilmore Clarke, chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, wrote to Mint Director Ross: "The Commission recognizes good workmanship in the head of Benjamin Franklin, as portrayed on the medal by the late Mr. Sinnock. However, the Commission is not satisfied with the model of the reverse.
"The eagle shown on the model is so small as to be insignificant and hardly discernible when the model is reduced to the size of a coin. The Commission hesitates to approve the Liberty Bell as shown with the crack in the bell visible; to show this might lead to puns and to statements derogatory to United States coinage.
"The Commission disapproves the designs.
"For a coin as important as the 50-cent piece, the Commission recommends a limited competition in which some of the ablest medallists of the country would be invited to participate. What Saint-Gaudens, Fraser, Weinman and MacNeil have accomplished in producing notable designs for coins that are acknowledged as works of art, could be repeated in this instance."
Ross presented the Franklin Institute with President Harry Truman's gift of two Franklin half dollars embedded in plastic. Dr. Henry Butler Allen, executive vice president and secretary of the Institute, accepted the gift as a permanent exhibit.
Franklin half dollars received nationwide distribution the day following the ceremony. Soon The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association, said: "Ten years ago several patriotic societies attempted to have the portrait of Franklin placed on our dime. They did not succeed. However, since a half dollar will still buy as much as a dime did in 1938, it now seems appropriate to have his portrait on the half dollar. This is the first instance a citizen, other than a president, has appeared on one of our regular coins."
The Philadelphia Mint struck 3,006,814 Franklin half dollars in 1948. The Denver Mint produced 4,028,600 pieces. Today an MS-60 1948 is valued at about $20; an MS-60 1948-0 is worth about $15. The San Francisco Mint did not strike Franklin half dollars until 1949, when it produced 3,744,000 pieces. The 1949-S is the key to the Franklin series and is worth about $100 in MS-60 condition.
The Philadelphia Mint did not strike Proof Franklin half dollars until 1950. A total of only 51,386 Proofs were minted that year. Just 13 years later, the last Franklin half dollars were struck.
"The coinage act empowers the director of the Mint to change the design of any coin, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, but specifies that a change may not be made more often than once in 25 years, and then it is not mandatory," Ross had said at the banquet. Few people at the 1948 commemorative dinner would have guessed that the Franklin half dollar, introduced with great fanfare, would fall far short of the statutory life. Special legislation killed the design and replaced it with the Kennedy half dollar in 1964.
The 1949-S is the key to the Franklin half series
The 1949-S is the key to the Franklin half series