The last Franklin half dollar struck at the San Francisco Mint, the 1954-S, offers a window into an evolving postwar United States Mint.
Replacing the Walking Liberty half dollar in 1948, the Franklin half dollar obverse was designed by Mint Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock, and the reverse was created by Sinnock and future Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts. The series was in production from 1948 to 1963 at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mints. The centennial of the latter facility, 1954, was the last year that Franklin half dollars were struck there, as coinage operations were suspended in 1955.
Many collectors are familiar with its famous predecessor, the 1953-S, and the massive gulf in value between Mint State examples with and without Full Bell Lines (FBL). Famous as the penultimate San Francisco issue is, the facility’s final issue of Franklin halves was a shade better in terms of strike quality. Other dates from the late 1940s and early-to-mid ’50s are weakly struck, hinting at the declining quality of coinage from the San Francisco Mint as it struck its last Franklin half dollars.
This may be due, in part, to the Mint’s attempts at “leaner” production after World War II. A Management Improvement Committee was formed in March 1949 composed of staff from five Mint facilities and a Management Improvement Program (MIP) was “vigorously projected in 1950” according to the Mint Director’s annual report. Budget cuts made efficiency the goal, and Mint Reports from the early-to-mid 1950s detail some of the changes implemented by the Management Improvement Program.
Production costs for the half dollar declined in the postwar years. In 1946, it cost $8.25 to strike 1,000 half dollars; in 1951, the cost was down to $7.59. A year later, it was $6.79. Similar reductions were achieved across other denominations.
Unfortunately, the outmoded plant layout of the San Francisco complicated efforts to streamline coin production. Engineers from the Public Buildings Administration and outside industries undertook a study to see how the facility could be modernized, but despite the declining costs, shipping coins to the West Coast from the Denver Mint presented a cheaper way to meet the region’s demand for coins than striking them in San Francisco.
In March 1955, coining operations at the branch mint were suspended, and eventually, its official designation was changed to Assay Office on July 11, 1962. Coinage operations were reauthorized by the Coinage Act of 1965. It would not be redesignated as a Mint until 1988.
The poor quality of 1950s San Francisco Mint coinage, like the weak strikes of the 1954-S half dollars, reflects this push for greater efficiency. 1953-S and 1954-S Franklin half dollars are not the only weakly struck dates; strike quality was poor on the 1949-S, the 1951-S, and the 1952-S Franklin half dollars as well. The San Francisco Mint did not strike Franklin half dollars in 1950.
4,993,400 Franklin halves were struck at San Francisco in 1954 (one of the series’ smaller mintages)–roughly 800,000 higher than its sought-after companion struck in 1953. Yet despite its poor reputation, many more 1954-S Franklin half dollars have received the Full Bell Lines designation from the major grading services than their 1953-S predecessors.
Two groups of horizontal lines around the base of Sinnock and Roberts’ Liberty Bell attract collector focus because they indicate strike quality. Well-struck Franklin halves have two sets of three raised lines (or four incuse lines) around the base of the Liberty Bell. Lyman L. Allen pointed to three wisps of hair to the right of Franklin’s ear as another diagnostic criterion in his Franklin Half Dollar Collector/Investor Guide.
The 1954-S Franklin Half Dollar in Today’s Market
Mint State 1954-S Franklin half dollars are relatively affordable and certified examples in Gem Uncirculated grades are abundant. Values for MS-65 examples stand between $30 and $50; lower Mint State coins can be found for $25 and less, while in MS-66, values stand between $100 and $150; values cross the four-figure mark in MS-67.
Mint State 1954-S Franklin halves with Full Bell Lines are worth a bit more than their less-sharply-struck counterparts. MS-65FBL examples typically auction for $150 and $200, though an example with a CAC sticker and some light toning sold in a Heritage auction in January of this year for a surprising $660. MS-66 pieces range from $600 to $750, while MS-67 coins run 10 times those amounts.
The record price for a 1954-S Franklin half dollar is $13,853, realized on August 2, 2017, in a Heritage auction; the coin was graded MS-67FBL by PCGS.
Numismatic News’ staff dubbed the coin a “sleeper” in an article published in December 2018: “1954-S remains a date that could see significant price changes if there is increased demand.”
Despite their reputation for being poorly struck, thousands of 1954-S Franklin half dollars are certified in uncirculated grades with FBL. 2,175 examples have been graded MS-64FBL (9 are graded MS-64+FBL) by PCGS, compared to 6,053 in MS-64 without FBL (35 are graded MS-64+). 3,639 of the 1954-S coins have been certified with FBL.
By contrast, 45 1953-S half dollars in any Mint State grade have received the FBL designation from NGC.
PCGS CoinFacts estimates that 25,000 examples survive in MS-60 or better and 12,000 in MS-65 or better.
The 1954-S Bugs Bunny Variety
Variety collectors may be interested in the 1954-S “Bugs Bunny“, FS-401. Not technically a variety in the strictest sense, the Bugs Bunny “variety” is actually a die clash image that resembles buck teeth in Franklin’s mouth on the obverse.
The variety was named and popularized in the 1950s by Harry J. Forman, a Philadelphia coin dealer. He aggressively promoted Franklin half dollars with this die clash image as varieties in The Numismatist starting in 1957. A colorful name for a visually striking mint error, the Bugs Bunny half dollars appeal to some variety collectors as a result of Forman’s aggressive marketing.
Bugs Bunny “varieties” are known for other dates, including 1955 and 1956.
It is interesting to note that both the obverse and reverse designs of the Franklin half dollar were rejected by the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA). The Treasury ignored this recommendation and approved the design anyway. In this instance, it seems that the CFA got it wrong. The Franklin half dollar design, despite being simple in concept, became an iconic exemplar of U.S. modern coinage, with the coin’s frosted cameo Proof strikings being highly coveted by collectors.
John Sinnock designed both sides of Franklin half dollar. His obverse design was based on Jean Antoine Houdon’s 18th-century bust of Franklin
The date appears in the lower-right of the obverse, while “IN GOD WE TRUST” curves beneath Franklin and “LIBERTY” curves around the top above Franklin.
Its edge is reeded, it weighs 12.5 grams, and measures 30 millimeters across.
Sinnock and Gilroy Roberts designed the reverse, which depicts the Liberty Bell and a small eagle (mandated by law) at right.
“UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” arcs above the Liberty Bell while the denomination, “HALF DOLLAR” curves beneath it. “E PLURIBUS UNUM” appears to the left of the bell and an eagle, its wings spread, stands to its right. Two sets of three parallel horizontal lines encircle the base and bottom of the bell, a key grading diagnostic indicative of strike quality.
Coins struck at the Denver and San Francisco Mints exhibit a small mintmark above the wooden beam holding the Liberty Bell, below “STATES” in “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA”. A tiny “S” in this location denotes coins struck at San Francisco, while a tiny “D” denotes coins struck at Denver. Franklin half dollar struck at the Philadelphia Mint were not struck with a mintmark.
The edge of the 1954-S Franklin half dollar is reeded.
From 1925 through 1947, John R. Sinnock was the Chief Engraver of the United States Mint. He is best known for the designs of the Roosevelt dime and Franklin half dollar.
Gilroy Roberts was the ninth Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint, serving from 1948-1965. He is best remembered for his design of the Kennedy half dollar obverse.
|Year Of Issue:||1954|
|Mint Mark:||S (San Francisco)|
|Alloy:||90% Silver, 10% Copper|
|OBV Designer||John R. Sinnock|
|REV Designer||John R. Sinnock/Gilroy Roberts|