The Franklin Half Dollar Ends a 156-Year Era of Liberty on American Coins
The Franklin half dollar was a silver half dollar coin produced by the United States Mint from 1948 to 1963. The coin featured the likeness of founding father Benjamin Franklin on the obverse and the Liberty Bell on the reverse. It was the first circulating half dollar to feature a historical portrait instead of an allegorical portrait of Liberty.
The Act of September 26, 1890 specified that the Treasury Department could modify coin designs without explict Congressional authorization only after a minimum of 25 years of use. Based on this law, the Walking Liberty half dollar design, which had proven difficult to strike, was eligible for replacement in 1941.
Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross was interested in using Benjamin Franklin’s image on a coin. After seeing Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock’s portrait of the Founding Father on a medal he created in 1933, Ross had Sinnock prepare a Franklin coin design. Implementation was delayed because of World War II, but Sinnock completed the obverse and reverse models a few weeks before his death in May 1947.
In her speech to the public when the Franklin half dollar was presented, Director Ross noted that some had urged her to place Franklin’s portrait on the penny because of his maxim “A penny saved is two pence clear” (usually misquoted as “A penny saved is a penny earned”). Her justification for using the half dollar was that the size and the silver composition of the half dollar were better suited to the “impressive effect” that was Franklin’s life.
An Overview of the Franklin Half Dollar Series
Franklin half dollars were produced in significant quantities and there are no date rarities in the series, though a fully-struck 1953-S is considered the series’ key date.
Nearly 900,000 Franklin halves have been certified by NGC and PCGS combined. Almost all of these coins are in uncirculated condition and CoinWeek estimates that at least another million uncertified uncirculated Franklin half dollars are held in coin collections throughout the country.
What Are They Worth?
Franklin half dollars are made of .900 silver and contain .036169 troy ounces of silver. With a spot price of $23.20 USD at the time of this writing (November 2023), the base value of a Franklin half dollar is approximately $8.40. Uncirculated examples are worth at least $20, and some examples in high grade with a complete strike can be worth as much as $70,000. Ultra-high-end Proof examples have brought prices as high as $80,000 at auction.
Specialist Collectors Look for Franklin Half Dollars with Full Bell Lines
Circulation strike Franklin halves have a tendency to be softly struck with some of the detail in the design not clearly brought up. Enthusiast collectors seeking the best quality coins look to see if the lines at the bottom of the Liberty Bell are extend uninterrupted from one side of the bell to the other.
When this occurs, the coin is said to have Full Bell Lines (FBL). Full Bell Line coins will always carry a higher premium than non-Full Bell Line coins, but in order for a Franklin half dollar to trade with the designation, it must be certified as such by a reputable third party grading service, such as CAC, NGC, or PCGS.
Generally speaking, coins struck at the Denver Mint were more likely to be struck with Full Bell Lines than coins struck at the Philadelphia or San Francisco mints. Coins struck at the San Francisco Mint tend to be the softly struck and for some dates, like the 1953-S, Full Bell Line examples are rare. CAC, NGC, and PCGS report a combined population of 2,769 Philadelphia Franklin half dollars from 1953 and 10,440 1953-D Franklin half dollars with Full Bell Lines. The 1953-S, on the other hand, is so rare with Full Bell Lines, that all three services report a combined population of just 69 examples.
Auction prices for Full Bell Lines 1953-S Franklin half dollars reflects the coin’s rarity. On May 31, 2020, GreatCollections sold a beautiful NGC MS66+ FBL example for $52,875. Amazingly, this is not the record price paid for an uncirculated Franklin half! Another example graded PCGS MS66FBL once sold for nearly $70,000.
Not all Full Bell Lines Franklin half dollars are prohibitively rare. Gem uncirculated examples from some of the more common dates are affordable and can trade for as little as $60-$70. The 1954-D is a popular date for collectors interested in finding an attractive, fully struck Franklin half at an affordable price.
Franklin Half Dollar Proof Coins are in a League of Their Own
Proof Franklin half dollars were produced from 1950 to 1963 and were sold as part of each year’s annual U.S. Mint Proof Set. Proof Set mintages increased dramatically as the series progressed, in large part due to the exploding popularity of coin collecting in the mid-1950s onward.
Proof Mintages by Year
- 1950 – 51,386
- 1951 – 57,500
- 1952 – 81,980
- 1953 – 128,800
- 1954 – 233,300
- 1955 – 378,200
- 1956 – 669,384
- 1957 – 1,247,952
- 1958 – 875,652
- 1959 – 1,149,291
- 1960 – 1,691,602
- 1961 – 3,028,244
- 1962 – 3,218,019
- 1963 – 3,075,645
Proof Franklin halves are scarce in surviving populations in relationship to demand only for the first two years of the series. Within the series, there are notable varieties, which can be quite rare, including the dramatic 1961 Doubled Die Reverse.
Beyond simply collecting one Proof example of every Franklin half dollar date, some collector enthusiasts seek out examples struck with fresh dies that exhibit frosted cameo contrast. Examples with thick cameo contrast are certified as Deep Cameo or Ultra Cameo by the grading services.
These examples sell at significant premiums and can be worth as much as $90,000 depending on a variety of factors.
Noteworthy Franklin Half Dollar Varieties
A few varieties are known, most consisting of die doubling and differences in the details of the small reverse eagle. Those identified in census/population reports are the 1951-S DDR (doubled die reverse) circulation strike; the 1956 Type 1 and Type 2 Proofs, which differ by the number of separated feathers shown on the eagle’s right wing; the 1960 DDO (doubled die obverse) Proof varieties; and the 1961 DDR varieties.
In-Depth Franklin Half Dollar Date Analysis by CoinWeek IQ
Below is a listing of more in-depth coin profiles of specific dates in the Franklin half dollar series.
- 1948 Franklin Half Dollar
- 1949 Franklin Half Dollar
- 1954-S Franklin Half Dollar
- 1960 Franklin Half Dollar
Franklin Half Dollar Design
Sinnock’s portrait is modeled after a bust by 18th-century French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The design, arguably a cleaner and bolder effort than Adolph Weinman’s acclaimed Liberty Walking motif, was not without controversy. The Fine Arts Commission objected to the small reverse eagle (added to the design because an eagle on coins was required by statute) and, oddly, to the obvious presentation of the crack in the Liberty Bell. As it turned out, public controversy was instead generated by Sinnock’s JRS initials, which during the fears of the Cold War were mistakenly thought by some to be a reference to Joseph Stalin. The reverse Liberty Bell was adapted from John Frederick Lewis’ original sketch for the 1926 Sesquicentennial half dollar, information not revealed by Sinnock at the time but discovered and reported in the 1960s by Don Taxay. Another rumor was that the small “O” in oF, part of UNITED STATES oF AMERICA, was a mistake and would soon be corrected, making the original issues more valuable; the text remained the same for the entire series.
Franklin’s right-facing portrait occupies much of the obverse. LIBERTY forms an arc inside the top rim and IN GOD WE TRUST a second arc inside the bottom rim. The date is placed to the right of the portrait, below the chin, extending nearly to the T in TRUST.
The Liberty Bell dominates the center of the reverse, with UNITED STATES oF AMERICA encircling around the top and HALF DOLLAR, in slightly larger text, around the bottom. The phrase E PLURIBUS UNUM, in three lines and with a dot on both sides of E, is to the left of the bell, and a small eagle is to right. The eagle rests on a perch, with wings partially outstretched. San Francisco (S) and Denver (D) mintmarks are located above the wood beam holding the bell.
The edge of the coin is reeded.
|Franklin Half Dollar|
|Years Of Issue:||1948-63|
|Mintage (Circulation):||High – 67,069,292 (1963-D); Low – 2,498,181 (1955)|
|Mintage (Proof):||High – 3,218,019 (1962); Low – 51,386 (1950)|
|Alloy:||90% silver, 10% copper|
|OBV Designer||John R. Sinnock|
|REV Designer||John R. Sinnock | Gilroy Roberts|
* * *
Bowers, Q. David. The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Whitman Publishing.
–. A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Whitman Publishing.
Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Doubleday.
Feigenbaum, David Lawrence and John Feigenbaum. The Complete Guide to Certified Barber Coinage. DLRC Press.
Guth, Ron and Jeff Garrett. United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Whitman Publishing.
Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Arco Publishing.
Yeoman, R.S and Kenneth Bressett (editor). The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. Whitman Publishing.
* * *