By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
Benjamin Franklin, the subject of the Franklin Half Dollar is perhaps one of the most famous Founding Fathers to have never become president of the United States. The Boston-born Franklin became a Philadelphia icon after running away from home at the age of 17 and serving as a printer, a postmaster, and a scientist in the City of Brotherly Love. He would even eventually invent bifocals, the glass armonica, the odometer, and several other contraptions.
As the American colonies worked harder to break free of their ties to Great Britain, Franklin took an active role as a patriotic statesman who eventually signed the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, and the United States Constitution. He was 84 when he died in 1790 and has ever since been recognized as an amiable diplomat, a prudent philosopher, and one of America’s most enduring heroes.
Designing the Franklin Half Dollar
It is little wonder that Franklin was chosen as the primary subject for the new half dollar designed by John R. Sinnock, the Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, who had recently completed work on the Roosevelt Dime.
The Mercury Dime and Walking Liberty Half Dollar, both designed by Adolph A. Weinman and released to the public in 1916, came to their ends in the 1940s when John R. Sinnock was tasked to replace them with new designs. The Mercury Dime was supplanted by a new design in 1946 honoring President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who contracted polio in his late 30s and founded the March of Dimes. The Walking Liberty Half Dollar was superseded by the Franklin Half Dollar in 1948.
It may be difficult for modern-day numismatists, many of whom revere the numismatic works of famed sculptor Adolph A. Weinman, to imagine any interest in replacing the designer’s Winged Liberty Head (or “Mercury”) design on the dime or his Liberty Walking motif on the half dollar – both series having premiered in 1916. Yet, by the early 1940s, both of these designs were too old in the eyes of some Mint officials and had surpassed the mandatory minimum run of 25 years, after which a coin can be redesigned without an Act of Congress per an 1890 United States coinage law. So, the dime and the half dollar were fair game for new designs.
However, World War II absorbed much of the Mint’s operational attention. Coin redesigns and even annual Uncirculated and Proof sets were put aside temporarily to focus on producing circulating coinage to meet the demands of the booming wartime economy. After the war drew to a close and the U.S. Mint began to resume its normal peacetime pace, Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross asked Sinnock to adapt the Franklin device from his 1933 medal for use on the half dollar.
Not lost on Ross was the irony of placing Franklin on the denomination, who preferred pithy sayings on coins over portraits. In a May 13, 1948, Associated Press interview, Ross, a lifelong fan of Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, stated that “probably it was the royal heads he objected to” on coinage, which, in Franklin’s day, honored reigning kings, queens, and other royalty. “Had [Franklin] known in his day that 150 years hence his image would be placed on a coin of this, his native land, to whose service his life was consecrated, we may assume, I believe, that he would not have been seriously displeased.” Noting that Franklin’s portrait had already appeared on the $100 bill, Ross added that “it seemed a good idea to put him on a piece of currency which the average citizen sees more often.” And in the late-1940s, half dollars still circulated about as widely as any other denomination of coin.
Enshrining Franklin’s portrait on the half dollar originally was Sinnock’s project, but he passed away in May 1947, just as he was wrapping up preliminary work on the new coin. Newly installed U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts, who served as Sinnock’s assistant, completed engraving work on the new Franklin Half Dollar, which was paired with a reverse motif featuring the Liberty Bell – an icon of Franklin’s time as elder U.S. statesman and an enduring symbol of Liberty from his adopted hometown of Philadelphia. The Liberty Bell design was originally engraved on the Franklin Half Dollar by Sinnock, who also designed the 1926 United States Sesquicentennial Half Dollar bearing a nearly identical version of the Liberty Bell. However, numismatists have in more recent years concluded that the Liberty Bell design seen on both the 1926 Sesquicentennial Half Dollar as well as the Franklin Half Dollar isn’t the brainchild of Sinnock but rather a design he borrowed from a sketch by English artist John Frederick Lewis, who died at the age of 72 in 1876.
The reverse of the Franklin Half Dollar also received a small device depicting an eagle alongside the Liberty Bell motif, included only after Mint officials realized the designs lacked an eagle, which the Coinage Act of 1890 requires on all denominations higher than a dime. The crack on the Liberty Bell was another notable quagmire, with the Commission of Fine Arts suggesting the fissure would lead to derogatory comments about the coin.
Treasury Secretary John W. Snyder overrode the misgivings of the Commission of Fine Arts, whose review role was merely advisory, and forged ahead in moving the Franklin Half Dollar into production, perhaps partly in tribute to the fallen Sinnock. A United States Treasury press release on January 7, 1948, characterized the Franklin Half Dollar as a coin proposed by Ross that received Snyder’s “enthusiastic approval.” The release stated that, at that time, just two specimens were released, one of them being shown to then-President Harry Truman, who was said to have been “much pleased with it.” Noting Franklin’s trademark “thrift,” Synder reportedly thought it would “remind everyone that an excellent thing to do with spare half dollars and other spare coins these days is to buy savings bonds and stamps.”
In January 1948, Ross said she had been encouraged to place the Franklin design on the one-cent coin because of his adage “a penny saved is twopence dear,” which has been translated to the more famous saying “a penny saved is a penny earned.” She added, “You will agree, I believe, that the 50-cent piece, being larger and of silver, lends itself much better to the production of an impressive effect.” She also was concerned about being culpable for removing the portrait of Abraham Lincoln from the very popular Lincoln Cent had she followed through on the advice to put Franklin on the penny.
The Franklin Half Dollar enjoyed a gala preview at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, where Ross invited 200 to a dinner party on April 29, 1948, and presented each guest with a Franklin Half Dollar encased in a card emblazoned with her autograph. The coin was formally released to the public on April 30, 1948. A May 1, 1948, article in the New York Times recounted how employees from the Franklin Savings Bank were dressed in Revolutionary-period apparel and sold the new Franklin Half Dollars from a booth outside the Sub-Treasury building in New York City.
This time, the Sinnock-engraved coin carried the initials “JRS”, referencing the late designer’s middle name “Ray” in an effort to prevent further rumors about communist references as occured with his Roosevelt Dime. But before the coin was circulating for very long, some were already connoting the coin as a poorly camouflaged tribute to Josef Stalin. Thankfully, the conspiracy theories were easily disproved and the Franklin Half Dollar enjoyed a respectable run as a successful coin widely embraced by the public.
Collecting the Franklin Half Dollar
As popular as the Franklin Half Dollar is with collectors, it’s a series that seems to be underappreciated for whatever reason.
Perhaps it’s the fact that the series, running for notably less than two decades, lacks any major key dates of remarkably low business-strike mintages. Even the lowest-mintage business strike, the 1955 issue, has a recorded mintage of nearly 2.5 million pieces.
There’s also the perception that there isn’t much of a challenge to building the set. Superficially, at least, some of these judgments ring true.
Yes, the series ran from just 1948 through 1963–that’s just 15 years (16 if counting those calendars inclusively from end to end).
Yes, there are no equivalent 1909-S VDB Lincoln Cents or 1916-D Mercury Dimes among the Franklin Halves – all the regular-issue circulation strikes can be obtained for prices not too far off from spot values in worn grades.
And yes, there are no major doubled dies or other oddities that help the Franklin Half Dollar leap afore collectors’ minds – as do pieces like the 1955 Doubled Die Lincoln Cent and the 1937-D Three-Legged Buffalo Nickel for their respective series.
The historical dearth of marketplace zeal for Franklin Half Dollars has meant that collectors enamored with these mid-century halves were able to enjoy some really good deals for quite a long time. Looking at the crux of the series, the Franklin Half Dollar yields 35 regular-issue coins, inclusive of all business strikes from the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mints.
Yet, add in the Proofs, major varieties, and other curiosities, and the number of required items more than doubles. And this isn’t even counting “Full Bell Lines (FBL)” Franklin Halves.
On the other end of the spectrum are the circulated regular issues. There was a period in the 1990s when one could buy a complete 35-piece basic set of Franklin Half Dollars for as little as $200, depending on the grade of the coins involved and the dealer. At the time, silver traded for around $4 to $5 an ounce and the bulk of the circulated coins could be plucked from dealer bins for $5 to $7 each, sometimes less. Many run-of-the-mill uncirculated specimens were readily available for $10 or $12 each.
Such deals are gone today, with silver up over $20 an ounce and numismatic premiums on all circulated pre-1965 90% silver U.S. coinage running at lofty highs. But it’s still one of the most underrated U.S. series of its time, even if the Franklin Half Dollar is no longer the overlooked series it once was 25 or 30 years ago.
The series offers a tantalizing blend of reasonably obtainable coins, challenging rarities, and grade-based keys that appeal to a broad range of collectors. The budget collector can still land a circulated set for maybe $500 or so, while the more quality-conscious fan of the series can amass the series in MS63 or MS64 for $1,000 to $1,300, depending on the grade of specific pieces.
Collectors who demand only the best of the best in grade, eye appeal, and complexity must dish out far more than a grand or two to assemble their sets. The series specialists who demand only coins with the FBL designation and examples of the most sought-after varieties could easily push into the six figures with their Franklin Half Dollar goals. This is where the competition between collectors can get intense, as there are remarkably few examples of any single Franklin Half Dollar issue at the very top of the grading charts.
FBLs, Varieties & Conditional Rarities
Looking at the Franklin Half Dollar in greater depth, it becomes clear that the series offers a rich array of pieces that can keep even the most intrepid collectors busy. While even a basic date-and-mintmark set can pose a financial hurdle to some who want only choice examples, the additional criteria of including only coins that are graded with the FBL designation or expanding into varieties and finest-graded specimens can turn what might otherwise be a rather pedestrian pursuit into a full-on numismatic challenge.
The FBLs alone pose a tremendous test, as many Full Bell Line Franklin Half Dollars prove nearly unattainable for many collectors, if not for cost than for elusiveness. Consider the 1953-S Franklin Half Dollar with FBL designation. Just one exists in the top grade of PCGS MS67FBL, meaning only one collector can claim the most pristine of all examples for this issue with the coveted Full Bell Lines designation. There are no known public transactions for this example, suggesting it is either long locked up in a collection or only being traded among a minuscule network of collectors or dealers.
Going down the grading scale to the next 1953-S FBLs we come to MS66FBL, of which two are currently known. The last public offerings at this level was in 2001, when two sales were notched: one at $35,075 and the other at $69,000. PCGS CoinFacts currently lists the value for a 1953-S MS66FBL as $60,000 – a figure beyond the financial reach of most collectors. As a matter of fact, even in MS63FB (the lowest grade point for which PCGS CoinFacts lists prices for the 1953-S in FBL), the retail market still points to prices around $8,250 – a price that may have a collector deciding between buying a coin for their Franklin Half Dollar set or perhaps paying down a sizable chunk of their mortgage. Decisions, decisions.
Assuming the Franklin Half Dollar collector who is building such a world-class cabinet on the PCGS Set Registry can obtain a 1953-S in FBL, there are at least 34 other dates required with the FBL designation to complete the assemblage with this prestigious designation. And many of these take $10,000 or more in grades of MS66+ or higher with the FBL designation.
Need proof? Check out the 1963 in MS66+FBL, which is an $85,000 coin. The 1962 in MS66+FBL isn’t far behind at $70,000. In MS66+FBL or MS67FBL (whichever is the higher available for said issue), at least 20 other dates notch retail prices of $10,000 or better. Do the math; you’ll quickly realize the majority of the issues required for the basic date-and-mintmark set take over $10,000 in the highest grades known. In many cases, these price tags exceed $20,000 and, in at least a few, they exceed $30,000.
Of course, collecting FBLs is just one way the Franklin collector can advance their numismatic game. There are varieties galore in the Franklin Half Dollar realm. Many doubled dies are attributed for the series, but the 1961 Reverse Doubled Die Proof is probably the single-most famous among Franklins. Dramatic doubling on this coin is evident in the inscriptions “E PLURIBUS UNUM”, “UNITED STATES”, and “HALF DOLLAR”. There are other Doubled Die Reverses for that year, but they are not as dramatic and are far less valuable.
The one to look for has very strong doubling of “E PLURIBUS UNUM”, “UNITED STATES”, and “HALF DOLLAR”. None have been graded by PCGS with the DCAM designation (Deep Cameo), and the service has encapsulated only four with the CAM (Cameo) distinction – perhaps only 20 would qualify at that level. At present, the few known 1961 Reverse Doubled Die Franklin Half Dollars retail for between $5,000 in PR64CAM and $14,500 in PR66+CAM. A PR68 (no Cameo designation) realized $15,000 at a November 2020 Stack’s Bowers Galleries offering, with PR66s obtainable for around $5,000.
The so-called “Bugs Bunny” die clashes also rank high among Franklin specialists. This variety entails the rather comical appearance of what looks like buck teeth on the Founding Father in very much the fashion of Bugs Bunny – the wise-cracking, carrot-chomping grey hare of Looney Tunes fame. Arising from the clashing of obverse and reverse dies, the funny “teeth” (a spike) were the result of the eagle’s wings on the reverse die pressing into the region of Franklin’s mouth on the obverse die.
Bugs Bunny Franklin Half Dollars made waves during the height of the coin collecting boom in the mid-1950s, when coins like the 1955 Doubled Die Lincoln Cent were coming to the fore and millions of people were scouring pocket change and bankrolls for the latest valuable varieties. The peculiar Franklin Half Dollar with an apparent need for orthodontic intervention was emerging during the era when Bugs Bunny was a household name, appearing in a colorful variety of cartoon shorts on television and movie theaters.
The Bugs Bunny die clash is most commonly seen on 1955 and 1956 Franklin Half Dollars, with the 1955 being the more numismatically prominent of the two. However, the variety is also known among other dates in the series, and it may yet still be discovered on issues not currently known to include it. PCGS has graded well over 2,500 examples to date, with most of these bearing the 1955 date, a small but significant minority are dated 1956, and the small remainder inclusive of issues from 1949, 1951, 1953, and other dates in the series run.
It’s a variety that is fairly difficult to spot unless one knows what to look for and where to look for it on the coin, and it can be readily cherry picked raw as many dealers either don’t know about the Bugs Bunny variety or don’t think to look for it.
The bulk of these curious pieces are graded MS63 to MS65 and sell in the $50 to $125 range, though higher-graded specimens and those possessing the Full Bell Lines designation are scarcer and sell for much more. A 1955 graded MS66FBL took $1,200 in an online auction in 2022, and a 1956 in that same grade snagged $989 that same year.
Other Franklin Half Dollar varieties collected within the PCGS Set Registry include dozens of others, such as the 1949-S Over S Repunched Mintmark, the 1952 Scarface, the 1957-D Over D Repunched Mintmark, the 1959 Goiter, and the 1963 Doubled Die Reverse. Even Proofs, which are supposed to represent the epitome of minting perfection, aren’t immune from a few gaffes – certainly not in the case of the Franklin Half Dollar, anyway. Proofs were struck from 1950 through 1963, which notably excludes the first two years of the circulation run; this is due to a temporary moratorium on Proof production beginning in 1943 that was necessitated by a focus on producing business strikes and military medals during World War II.
When Proof production resumed in 1950, some interesting varieties cropped up immediately, with the 1950 Quadrupled Die Obverse. This was followed up by the 1951 Doubled Die Reverse, the 1952 Bugs Bunny Proof, the 1956 Type 1 and Type 2 varieties, the 1957 Tripled Die Reverse, and the 1962 Doubled Die Reverse.
Any conversation about Franklin Proofs must also touch on the remarkable challenge – and expense – in procuring Cameo examples. As students of modern United States Proofs generally know, Cameo Proof coinage dating before the 1970s is extremely scarce or even rare. Proof Franklin halves with Cameo frosting, and especially Deep Cameo (DCAM) contrast, are infrequently encountered and highly sought after. One of the biggest spreads in pricing between regular Proof and DCAM occurs with the 1951 Proof. The 1951 lists at $2,150 in PR67, while in PR67CAM it goes for $4,250 and in PR67DCAM it realizes $85,000. Meanwhile, the 1959 in PR69 takes $750, with the PR69CAM going for $12,500 and the PR69DCAM drumming up $50,000. Most other high-end DCAM Franklin Half Dollars trade for more modest four-figure prices and many of those in the middle Proof grades can be had for three figures, and quite often less than $100.
What this all goes to show is that the Franklin Half Dollar series offers something for just about everyone, and those with the pocketbooks–and perhaps more importantly the patience–can build an incredible set.
Registry Set Collecting Strategies
The Franklin Half Dollar offers myriad collecting avenues and opportunities. There is always the option of going the tried-and-true route with collecting the run of circulation strikes by date and mintmark.
The addition of Proofs provides greater depth to any Franklin Half Dollar set, and in the case of the PCGS Set Registry, there are several options for incorporating these numismatic strikes from the series. These include the Proof-only Franklin Half Dollars Basic Set, Proof (1950-1963), and the more advanced Franklin Half Dollars FBL Basic Set, Circulation Strikes and Proof (1948-1963). Greater complexity can be further built into these sets by narrowing the proofs down to only those graded with the CAM or DCAM designation.
Finally, there are the Franklin variety sets – and these are by far some of the most challenging sets to build. Consider the 79-coin Franklin Half Dollars Complete Variety Set, Circulation Strikes (1948-1963), which is also available in an FBL-only option. The proof strikes rank their own variety-based PCGS Registry Set with the 29-coin Franklin Half Dollars Complete Variety Set, Proof (1950-1963).
If you’ve got a tighter budget, don’t forget the Franklin Half Dollars Date Set, Circulation Strikes (1948-1963), which requires just 16 coins and avoids tougher, more expensive issues like the 1949-D and 1950-D issues. Then there are the PCGS Everyman sets, which mirror the configurations of their corresponding “regular” sets but allow for collectors to be more competitive and earn potential prizes without the challenge and expense of buying top-grade pieces.
Many other PCGS Registry Sets also cater to the Franklin Half Dollar buff, and that’s not even discussing the slew of type sets that, along with other classic U.S. coins, have at least one hole dedicated to the coin. Deciding which Franklin Half Dollar set to build all comes down to the degree of challenge you desire, how much money you can budget, and what your overarching collecting goals are.
The Franklin Half Dollar’s Legacy
Had Lee Harvey Oswald not killed the 46-year-old president John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, the Franklin Half Dollar might have lived well beyond 1963. Seeing how presidential portraits first placed on circulating coins during the first half of the 20th century are still produced today, it’s not even all that far-fetched to believe the Franklin Half Dollar may have therefore continued until today. It’s even plausible to speculate that the half dollar would still be a widely circulating denomination had the Kennedy Half Dollar not been struck – at least not with the sudden and devastating events that precipitated its creation. After all, halves really only disappeared from commerce when millions of Americans began pulling Kennedy Half Dollars from circulation as a memento of the youthful fallen president. This collecting habit persisted well beyond the mid-1960s and even into the copper-nickel clad era on the belief that all Kennedy Half Dollars were worth more than face value, which – unless they are made from silver, are uncirculated, contain errors, or are notable varieties – they are not.
While the Franklin Half Dollar is certainly a well-known and popular collectible, the series never really got its due. Presuming a normal course of events would have otherwise played out for the Franklin Half, its life was likely cut short by at least a decade given the mandate of a 25-year minimum on the lifespan of coin designs, per the earlier-referenced 1890 coinage law. After the sudden and tragic event that ended Kennedy’s life, a coin honoring his likeness was legislated into existence in a matter of only weeks and thus brought an end to the Franklin Half Dollar.
Of course, it’s hard for many to envision the appearance of a Franklin Half Dollar bearing a date from the 1970s, ‘80s, or ‘90s, let alone think of the coin in the copper-nickel-clad composition it surely would have adopted had it survived another decade or more. And maybe that’s exactly as it should be. The Franklin Half Dollar holds many unique distinctions, serving as the last large-denomination U.S. coin series not produced in a clad format and is one of the few circulating United States coins carrying the likeness of a non-presidential politician. It also marks one of the few times Franklin ever spent so much time paired with an eagle, a bird he was famously to despise – at least in jest.
Franklin remains one of the nation’s most beloved historic figures, and he remains every bit as much a mascot for Philadelphia as fictional boxer Rocky Balboa. Collectors wishing to pay tribute to the man who discovered electricity when his kite was struck by lightning may be electrified with the many possibilities for collecting the Franklin Half Dollar; as we see, there are options suitable for virtually everybody. And with the 75th anniversary of the Franklin Half Dollar, there has perhaps never been a more punctual time to collect a coin honoring one of the nation’s most practical – and timeless – heroes.
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Great article, Josh! Thank you for a very informative about this underappreciated coin.
I may be in the minority, but I’ve long felt it was a terrible mistake to have not issued the 1964 Kennedy design as a one-year memorial coin. Resuming the Franklin design in 1965 – as well as immediately switching to cupronickel clad composition – arguably would have avoided the massive hoarding of halves that led to their demise as a circulating denomination.
Thank you so much, Clockwork Squirrel! I bet had a situation like your proposal played out, the Franklin Half Dollar may still be a commonly encountered coin in circulation, albeit a copper-nickel clad piece.