[The following excerpt is published courtesy of DLRC Press and its author, Rick Tomaska. This information was originally published in 2002 in The Complete Guide to Franklin Half Dollars]
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by Paul Green
For many years the Franklin half dollar was an overlooked, if not totally ignored, circulating coin. It was the Franklin half dollar’s misfortune to be in circulation at a time when there were treasures waiting to be found in every roll of cents, nickels or dimes acquired at the local bank.
As it was, few ordinary collectors of the period had the time or inclination to concern themselves with a Franklin half dollar collection.
In some respects, the Franklin half dollar has always been the other shoe dropping in 20th century American issues. It represented the final step in sweeping allegorical figures off the five circulating denominations. Once President Theodore Roosevelt had installed Abraham Lincoln on the cent, it was only logical that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would follow.
The death of Franklin D. Roosevelt added a fourth president to the legendary three. He was the third president to be put on a coin in a 14-year span. After all, Roosevelt had been widely popular, brought the nation from the depths of the Great Depression and then served as commander in chief right up until his death just prior to successfully concluding the war effort.
Elected to four terms by large majorities, Franklin D. Roosevelt was probably as close as 20th century America came to getting a Washington, Lincoln, or Jefferson. With his death there was no surprise the nation had to put his likeness on a coin.
Four great presidents occupied positions on four circulation coins. That left the half dollar. Most numismatists would agree that there was nothing wrong with the Adolph Weinman Walking Liberty half dollar. In fact, the design is viewed as one of the great designs in American numismatic history. Proof of that can be seen in its use on the obverse of the silver American Eagle today. That puts the Walking Liberty half dollar in the company of the great Saint-Gaudens double eagle as the only American coin design to essentially be used twice.
It has been suggested that Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross had initially begun thinking about the notion of a coin to honor Benjamin Franklin after the release of chief engraver John Ray Sinnock’s Franklin medal in 1933.
If that story is true, the 15 years from 1933 to 1948 are hard to explain. The simple fact is that the Walking Liberty half dollar could not have been changed without an act of Congress until the early 1940’s. Even when the 25-year minimum was fulfilled, there was no quick action to replace the Walking Liberty design.
In fairness, the nation was in the middle of World War II and there were more important things to be considered than coin design changes.
replacing the powerful Walking Liberty with Benjamin Franklin, the diplomat and philosopher, might have been the wrong message for the war effort.
Once World War II concluded, the nation returned to normal. The Roosevelt dime was produced and, if anything, that experience probably reminded officials that they could change coin designs. The one design they could politically change was the Walking Liberty half dollar. The only other design having been around for the legal minimum of 25 years was the Lincoln cent and no one would take Lincoln off the cent. Miss Liberty’s reign on the nation’s circulating coins was about to end (not counting the suspended silver dollar).
Finally, in 1947 the Mint director asked chief engraver Sinnock to design a Franklin half dollar. There is no evidence of consideration of a design competition at the initial stages of the work. Ultimately the Commission of Fine Arts was unhappy with the reverse and at that time they suggested a limited design competition. That, however, was after the fact. The suggestion does not appear to have been made initially.
Ordering Sinnock to go ahead with a design was not that unusual. Sinnock had the credentials. He had been chief engraver since the death of George Morgan in 1925. He had designed two commemorative coins for the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial. He has also done the reverse of the Lincoln Illinois Centennial half dollar. Moreover, he had designed the Cuban one peso in 1934, the one lempira for Honduras, had redesigned the Purple Heart in 12931 and, perhaps most importantly, had been credited with the design work for the Roosevelt dime.
Under the circumstances there would have been little the Commission of Fine Arts could have done. There could be no dispute that Sinnock had the credentials to design a coin. Moreover, Nellie Tayloe Ross had liked his earlier Franklin medal, so it was almost natural to give him the task.
Sinnock’s obverse for the Franklin half dollar was generally approved by everyone, including the Commission of Fine Arts. The problems came with the reverse, which the commission did not approve. It didn’t matter to Sinnock. He died before the commission expressed its view.
The Commission of Fine Arts had two problems with Sinnock’s reverse. The first was the eagle size. Almost certainly the size of the eagle was deliberate in deference to Franklin, who absolutely hated eagles. In fact, Franklin had openly and loudly expressed his distaste for eagles and preference for the turkey as the national bird.
The other problem, as expressed in the commission’s letter to Nellie Tayloe Ross, was “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.
Somehow that particular problem has not aged well. The Liberty Bell is clearly cracked. Everybody knows it.
Over the years there would probably have been more puns and derogatory statements if there had been an attempt to depict the bell without a crack.
Whatever the final reasons, the records fall silent and the Franklin half dollar was released into circulation as it had been designed by Sinnock and disapproved by the Commission of Fine Arts.
The Franklin half dollar made its first public appearance in 1948. Production levels were fairly low, with 3,006,814 coins being produced at Philadelphia and another 4,028,600 coins at Denver. The production levels were actually in line with the times as half dollar production had not been very high in the previous two years, with the exception of the 1946 Walking Liberty half dollar from Philadelphia. Initial Franklin half dollar production did not even take place in San Francisco until 1949.
The second year of Franklin half dollars followed the same trend. San Francisco began production but only made 3,744,000 coins. Philadelphia topped 5 million while Denver added another 4,120,600. For whatever reason, the early Franklin half dollars were apparently not put aside in any significant numbers.
It is well worth remembering that in the late 1940s and early 1950s half dollar collecting was a rather expensive activity when compared to other denominations. The minimum wage was 40 cents an hour when the Franklin half was approved, so a comparable coin today for average collectors would have a $5 face.
Moreover, there were so many tough and valuable coins in circulation at the time with lower face values that putting aside an uncirculated 1948 or 1949-D Franklin half dollar probably seemed like a way to tie up too much money on coins of rather limited potential.
While that might have seemed wise at a time with premium priced coins from every denomination in circulation, the lack of collectors putting aside top quality Franklin half dollars shows clearly in the market today. Dates like the 1949-D and 1950-D bring very high prices in MS-65.
Other dates are strong in all grades. These dates include the 1949-D, which had a modest mintage. The same can be said of the 1951-D, 1952-S, 1953 and the 1955, which was the lowest mintage Franklin half dollar, with a production total of just 2,498,181 pieces. It should also be added that all 1948 and 1949 dates have gained respect and price premiums over the years.
In the back of every collector and investor consideration of Franklin half dollars today must also be the period of the late 1970’s when the price of silver went to $50 an ounce. That put almost every Franklin half dollar in virtually any condition in the category of a coin that could be melted for its silver content, which for that brief period was greater than it numismatic value. It is virtually impossible to this day to even begin to figure out the vast numbers of Franklin half dollars sold basically as scrap during that period.
Certainly any quantities of uncirculated rolls from the early 1960s were sold for their silver value. Joining them were literally all dates in circulated condition. In fact, just a small number of dates in uncirculated condition were priced high enough at the time to justify financially not selling them for silver value. That there are any circulated Franklin half dollars and uncirculated examples of a large number of dates today is probably due primarily to collectors who valued having a Franklin half dollar collection more than immediate profits. They have earned the honor of preserving history at some financial cost to themselves.
It is also well worth remembering that Franklin halves circulated and had normal losses that way. Moreover, the Franklin half dollar was never a heavily produced coin. Only the 1963-D had a production level greater than 50 million pieces. Very few other dates topped the 25-million mark and approximately half of the entire Franklin half dollar dates fell below 10 million pieces.
And just as Benjamin Franklin seemed to have a long delay in appearing on a coin, he was quickly and easily replaced. Public Law No. 88-256 replaced Franklin on the half dollar with the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Almost typically, the public stormed banks seeking the new Kennedy half dollars and the last of the Franklin half dollars passed quietly into circulation.
Despite everything, Franklin half dollars are still available today and even if your hobby budget does not allow for absolute top grades, a very nice looking collection can be assembled for relatively small sums. In fact, as larger denomination silver coins go, there are few more affordable than the Franklin half dollar, which just may be a fitting legacy for Franklin, much like that tiny eagle on the reverse.
Benjamin Franklin would be pleased with the tiny eagle on the reverse of the half dollar named after him. The eagle couldn’t be eliminated entirely because coins of that denomination are required to carry an eagle on them.
NOTE: This article originally appeared in Numismatic News on June 11, 1996 and is reprinted here with permission of the author and Numismatic News.