The Kennedy Half Dollar is perhaps one of the best examples of American nationalism impacting coinage. Seldom would a decision be made so quickly, new coins be introduced, and a design replaced that would otherwise not have been replaced for at least another ten years. Few coins hold such memories for Americans as this half dollar, even though the denomination is now rarely seen within commerce. Yet, the coin remains popular with Americans that know its existence, and many families have a few tucked away in a drawer as a memento. Despite all this there is also a history that might be unfamiliar for all but coin collectors, and often the key to a coin’s value lies there.
John F. Kennedy was the 35th President of the United States, inaugurated in 1961. He was born in 1917, he went by the name of “Jack” early in his life, during which he had to overcome several illnesses. The youngest person elected to the office, he is especially known for his iconic speeches. On November 22, 1963, however, things would change dramatically. That day, during a visit in Dallas, Texas, he was assassinated during an open motor parade. While he was not the first President to be shot while in office, it was the first time it was possible for media to report almost instantly on the event, and within hours news of the assassination had quickly spread, sending shock waves across the nation.
Mint Director Eva Adams was a great admirer of the President at the time, and it should come as no surprise that very shortly after the assassination a coin honoring the late President was already considered. Most of what we know of these turbulent few months comes from recollections from Gilroy Roberts and Frank Gasparro, the designers of the coin. Gilroy Roberts later recollected that Mint Director Adams had called him within hours of the assassination. He was at the Mint at the time, working, and talked to Adams about possible denominations that were considered, these being the Quarter Dollar, Half Dollar and Silver Dollar. The Silver Dollar had not been produced since the 1930’s, and while there were discussions going on about reviving the largest silver denomination, the plans were not viable enough to consider placing Kennedy on that particular denomination. Jackie Kennedy, who had ridden in the Presidential Motorcade sitting right next to the husband, opposed replacing the Washington design of the quarter, and thus the half dollar denomination was chosen.
The previous design for the half dollar featuring Benjamin Franklin had been minted since 1948. While generally US circulating coinage designs have to be used for a minimum of 25 years, an exception was made in this case by congressional approval, in part due to the request of Kennedy’s successor Johnson.
By this time, it was already late in 1963, making it more favorable to start production with 1964-dated coins. Time was still short, so it was decided that Roberts would work on the obverse while his assistant Gasparro would work on the reverse. As a basis for their designs they used a presidential medal created shortly before, featuring a bust of Kennedy on the obverse and two torches, the presidential seal and a quote from Kennedy on the reverse. The particular design had been approved by Kennedy himself.
The final design was noticeably different from the Presidential Medal, although similarities can easily be noticed. The obverse features a truncated bust of the late-president, facing left. Around the head is the word LIBERTY, while in front of the neck is IN GOD and behind the neck is WE TRUST, combining into the familiar motto. Below the bust, near the periphery is the date, slightly curved to follow the curvature of the coins. The reverse featured the Presidential Seal, but now enlarged, and the torches were gone. Above the seal is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, and below the seal is the denomination, spelled as HALF DOLLAR. Between the lettering and the star are fifty stars, representing the fifty states in the Union.
Production for the series commenced in early 1964, and demand was huge. Proof coin production started first, while the circulation strikes followed later. A total of 430 million half dollars dated 1964 would be struck, more than the twenty previous years combined. Speculation followed and most of the mintage was hoarded, although some was sent overseas, as remembrance to the late President. The huge output put enormous pressure on the Mints in both Philadelphia and Denver, which focused most of the coinage production on the new half dollars.
While Kennedy Half Dollars remain in production to this day, the denomination is virtually nowhere to be seen in commerce, leading some people to belief that the coins are rare. For the most part, this is not the case, as the majority of half dollars encountered will be common and worth no more than face value. Exceptions lie in the issues struck between 1964 and 1970, which have value due to the silver content. Additionally, certain scarce varieties, proof or special mint set issues struck for collectors, and exceptionally high grade examples for any date can command sometimes substantial premiums.