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The “Other” Monty Hall Problem: Disappearing Half Dollars

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By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for Coinweek …….
I enjoy viewing old TV game shows. I grew up seeing guys like Bert Convy, Bob Barker, and Jim Perry wheel and deal with contestants for prizes like new cars, fine jewelry, and fancy computers with 64 kilobytes of RAM (it was the eighties). I also enjoy watching older TV game shows, such as the ones that were on before I was a twinkle in my parents’ eyes, including the ’60s and ’70s version of the long-running smash hit Let’s Make a Deal.

While many of you grew up watching or at least knowing about Let’s Make A Deal, I understand there are plenty of people who have no idea what I’m talking about and haven’t even seen the current incarnation starring comedian Wayne Brady as the host. So here’s how the show works:

The host selects random audience members, many of them dressed in wacky costumes, and offers them something of value. The audience member–suddenly a player–has to choose between taking that item or trading it in for an unseen prize behind a curtain or door. Sometimes the player ends up getting a bigger prize out of the deal – but many of them get “zonked” with goats, huge stuffed animals or rusty old jalopies.

The logic behind which of the three doors on the show to choose has lead to a now decades-old probability problem known as the Money Hall Problem, named for the original host of the internationally-beloved program. Many mathematicians and logisticians have tried tackling this popular brain-teaser, including noted columnist Marilyn Vos Savant.

But what about those half dollars? I’m getting there…

On the 1960s and ’70s version of the show, Monty would keep the action going even through the rolling end credits by offering to trade $20, $50, $100, or even more for random items from members of the studio audience. He seemed to particularly enjoy trading away wads of cash for any half dollars in selected audience members’ pockets and purses. Hall didn’t do so badly on those deals, because very few audience members, even in the mid-70s, seemed to be carrying around many half dollars.

On one re-aired episode from around 1974, Hall offered $50 to a woman for every half dollar she had on her – the deal was good for up to 20 half dollars, or a cash trade of $1,000. Puzzled about the deal, the woman scrunched her face toward Hall and replied “Half dollars? They don’t make those any more!” Hall cheekily answered “Well, all I know is I have a bunch of them sitting at home in a jar!”

The United States Mint struck 280,662,300 business-strike Kennedy half dollars in 1974, or more than enough for every man, woman, and child living in the United States at the time, including Hall and his half-dollar-deprived guests. Not even counting proofs, the United States Mint had, by the end of 1974, already struck more than 1.1 billion copper-nickel clad Kennedy half dollars. Thus, that eliminated the “excuse” for any of these coins to be held aside purely for the sake of silver metal content, as had been the case with pre-1971 Kennedy halves, which have a composition consisting of at least 40 percent silver.

Interestingly, as I watch more and more reruns of Let’s Make a Deal (I’m already well past 100 episodes), a few guests are able to take Hall up on his occasional cash buyouts for half dollars. In fact, I’ve seen at least five guests do so thus far–but not more than 10. Meaning that, in my little, highly unscientific survey of people traveling to Burbank, California, in tripped-up Halloween costumes to be on a television game show, it seems that around 10 percent of people at that time were carrying around half dollars. I’m sure any of the statisticians reading this are probably screaming at me right now – I don’t have a control group, this is purely unscientific, and who’s to say that many of the guests without half dollars on the show probably did in fact normally carry half dollars around but removed them from their pockets so they wouldn’t jingle on-air if called up to play a trading game?

I have a hunch, however, that my very unscientific hypothesis may be more or less on track. According to a collective thought on the matter from most coin scholars I’ve heard from, the half dollar was largely extinct from general circulation by the early 1980s, if not earlier. Mintage figures seem to confirm that. The last time either the Philadelphia or Denver Mint struck more than 100 million business-strikes in a single given year was 1976. The previous occasion for which any one mint struck more than 60 million half dollars was in 1979. And 1983 marked the last time Kennedy half dollars were struck in excess of 30 million pieces at any one facility.

From 1984 onward, half dollar mintages dwindled to a consistent range of 10 million to 20-odd million pieces per mint, and in 1987 they were made only for uncirculated and proof sets. 2001 was the last time the U.S. Mint struck Kennedy half dollars for general commerce, and since 2002 the denomination has been struck solely for numismatic purposes.

So, what happened? Why are half dollars now extinct – and why did Monty Hall have a hard time finding any among his large studio audiences, even in 1974, when there were already more than 1 billion cupronickel Kennedy halves in existence?

Remember that reply Hall made to the dumbfounded contestant who thought the Mint wasn’t making any more half dollars in 1974? Hall’s off-the-cuff comment, “All I know is I’ve got a bunch of them sitting at home in a jar,” spoke for virtually all of America as to exactly where the majority of our half dollars were in 1974. They were literally – and figuratively – sitting in coin jars.

This particular Monty Hall Problem dates back to 1964, when the United States government vowed to honor the fallen president on the half dollar. In fact, the new half dollar was set into motion within just six weeks of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. By the time the Congressional bill authorizing the Kennedy Half Dollar was passed on December 30, 1963, work was nearly complete on the dies. Production of proof Kennedy half dollars followed within days, and the first business-strikes were made at the Denver Mint on January 30, 1964. The Philadelphia Mint was producing millions of business strikes a week later.

The Treasury officially released the first Kennedy half dollars into circulation on March 24, 1964, with long lines of people forming to buy the new coin. Kennedy half dollars disappeared from circulation channels nearly as quickly as they were made. Within days, a denomination that had once served as a workhorse of general commerce became a treasured memento to the fallen president – a sentimental souvenir available to the public for the mere price of 50 cents each.

Add to this the coincidental impact of the silver coinage crisis, during which many people were hoarding all 90 percent silver dimes, quarters, and half dollars as the value of the precious metal content exceeded the denomination values of U.S. coinage. Indeed, by the mid-1960s, most Americans were habitually removing half dollars from circulation because of their silver content, the beloved president they honored, or for both reasons.

Even by the mid-1970s, when new circulation-strike Kennedy half dollars contained no precious metal, Americans saved the coins anyway. But by then the public had come to regard the Kennedy half dollar not as a coin to be spent, but as something special. Apparently, so, too, did most of the people who wound up in outlandish costumes on Let’s Make a Deal.

And thus the “other” Monty Hall Problem was born.


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2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for providing a history of how this once-useful denomination met its end. I was growing up at the time and remember at least a few years before 1964; no one gave a second thought to using a single half dollar instead of two quarters. In retrospect it still seems incomprehensible that the Mint held onto the fiction that silver-clad halves would be “prestige” coins and not be vacuumed out of circulation along with their 90% ancestors. The decision to keep minting the coin in clad silver and then not change its size or design in 1971 helped reinforce the still-prevalent myth that “all halves are silver”. It also allowed so many to disappear from use that as pointed out, the half is now trapped in a circle of non-use: it’s hoarded because it’s uncommon, and it’s uncommon because it’s hoarded.

    By contrast, Australia withdrew its reduced-silver 50¢ pieces and replaced them with a different cupronickel coin that continues to circulate. Britain and the EU, of course, had the advantage of starting with a clean slate which allowed them to establish the 50p and €0.50 denominations as simply part of ordinary coinage.

    It’s only a dream, but if Congress ever developed the spine to authorize true modernization of our coinage perhaps a smaller 50¢ piece could honor someone else (Teddy Roosevelt?? A non-political figure??) and rejoin our coinage system. Otherwise, if and when the cent eventually goes the way of the trime we’ll be left with only three denominations, one of which (the quarter) isn’t even truly a decimal piece.

    • Hello, Munzen —

      I’m happy you enjoy the article, and I appreciate your kind words. It’s amazing that within the period of less than 20 years (and much less time, according to some numismatic scholars), half dollars went from being an important part of daily commerce to essentially non-existent, and it’s a situation that really came to a head in the mid 60s.

      There have been various proposals made for reestablishing half dollars in circulation and/or completely revamping the U.S. coinage system altogether, though none of these ideas really ever get off the ground. It would be interesting to see what would happen if such a proposal ever did gain traction in federal legislation.

      Best,
      Josh

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