March 11, 2013
As a kid, I remember spending half dollars. Walkers and Franklins were seen in commerce regularly, and it was quite a useful coin. Yes, it was a little large, but still fit comfortably in a pocket. A look at many of the Barber halves worn down to AG-3 condition certainly speaks to an active life at some point in the distant past. Somewhere over the last fifty years, the half dollar has all but disappeared from circulation. What happened, and will the half dollar ever make a comeback?
The half dollar was once a workhorse
The demise of the half dollar began with the assassination of JFK in November 1963. In the outpouring of national grief, it was decided to honor him with his portrait on the half dollar. The 1964 Kennedy Half Dollar was instantly hoarded as a precious keepsake of the martyred President, and despite the huge mintage of almost 425 million pieces, few ever made it into circulation. Those that did, were quickly withdrawn.
The popular 1964 Kennedy Half that ultimately doomed the denomination
Now, had the price of silver remained stable, ensuing years' issues might have filtered into commerce and the coin would have remained viable. But 1964 marked the last year of the production of 90% silver coins. Clad, or "sandwich" coins were introduced in 1965, and dimes and quarters no longer contained any silver. However, the Kennedy half dollar, for some inexplicable reason, continued to be issued with a reduced 40% silver content. During 1965-1970 as the millions of older silver coins were quickly withdrawn from circulation, word was out that the "current" halves still contained some silver, and they too, were hoarded. The public is easily confused, and even though the melt value of a 40% Kennedy half didn't exceed its face value until 1974, virtually all of the 1965-1970 coins, like the 1964s, ended up in drawers in people's homes.
By 1971, the Kennedy half was a pure clad coin without any silver. Even though the mint turned out over a billion halves from 1971 through 1974, so ingrained had the notion that Kennedy halves were somehow "special" become, that they too ended up being saved. Out of sight, out of mind. Vending machines were made that took only nickels, dimes and quarters. Cash registers were arranged so that the half dollar no longer had a spot. The 1976 Bicentennial issue likewise was seen as souvenir, and even a mintage of over 500 million pieces could not discourage their "collectible" status.
Since 1977, mintages slowly dwindled. Through 2001, average annual mintages ran in the 30 to 60 million range. But in 2002, the mint finally gave up, and decided to issue halves only for collectors, selling mint state pieces directly from their facility at 1.5 to 2 times face value.
Rare Beast – A 2004-P Kennedy made for collectors with a mintage of only 2.9 million
So will the half dollar ever again be used in commerce? Hard to say. If the cent is discontinued, it would certainly make some space in cash registers. A half would certainly be quite useful in vending machines - but some serious modifications would need to be made to the mechanisms. My gut feel tells me we'll see a slot for a mini-debit card in vending machines before we'll see a larger coin slot for a half dollar.
Although I'd personally like to see the half dollar return, I'd bet against it.