Within a few days of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, Mint Director Eva Adams notified Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts of the Treasury Department’s intent to place Kennedy’s portrait on one of the U.S. silver coins. The tragic death of the dynamic and popular President was to result in the renaming of many public buildings and roads after him, and the same expression of grief created a desire to honor the slain President on a coin. The recognition of a former president on a circulating coin was hardly unprecedented, having begun with the placement of Lincoln’s portrait on the cent in 1909 (died 1865), followed by Washington on the quarter in 1932 (died 1799), Jefferson on the nickel in 1938 (died 1826), and Franklin Roosevelt on the dime in 1946 (died 1945). Roosevelt’s portrait was added to the dime only one year after his death; and there was considerable pressure to put Kennedy’s portrait on a coin as quickly as possible.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
Several of the other circulating coins were considered for the memoriam but all were rejected for a variety of reasons. Jacqueline Kennedy, the President’s widow, was not in favor of replacing the Washington portrait on the quarter. Though considered, silver dollars had not been minted for circulation since 1935 (although in 1964 Peace dollars were minted again, none of which circulated and all of which were presumably destroyed). Apparently no serious consideration was given to changing the portraits on the cent, nickel or dime. Director Adams, on or near November 27, informed Engraver Roberts that the half dollar was the choice, and that the head and eagle that appeared on Kennedy’s inaugural medal were to be the prototypes for the new coin. In spite of a nationwide coin shortage at the time, and with plans for the Kennedy coin well along, the Treasury Department did not want to issue 1964-dated Franklin half dollars. The short schedule from plan to implementation was accomplished because the original models for the Kennedy medal were available, and both Chief Engraver Roberts (obverse) and Assistant Engraver Frank Gasparro (reverse) were accomplished artisans.
One last potential obstacle was the Act of September 26, 1890, which mandated a minimum of 25 years between coin design changes, unless otherwise authorized by Congress. The Franklin half had been minted only since 1948, but Kennedy’s popularity along with promotion by President Lyndon B. Johnson were sufficient to secure Congressional authorization for the change. Hundreds of millions of Kennedy half dollars were minted in 1964, significantly more than the total number of Franklin halves produced in 1963, but nearly all were saved by collectors (including those who wanted only a souvenir of the late President) and investors; very few circulated. The 1964 half dollar was the last business strike 90 percent silver half dollar. From 1965 through 1970, and again in 1976 for the Bicentennial, 40 percent silver Kennedy halves were made in a silver-copper clad composition, and from 1971 forward in the same copper-nickel clad composition used for the dime and quarter since 1965. Silver proof Kennedy half dollars have been minted yearly since 1992.
A left-facing portrait of Kennedy, slightly high on the flan, occupies the center of the obverse. The word LIBERTY, BER partially obscured by the top of Kennedy’s head, follows to the inside of the flat rim around slightly more than the top half of the coin. The date is at bottom, with widely spaced numerals concentric to the rim. IN GOD WE TRUST, in two sections separated by the tip of the neck, is in a horizontal line above the date. On the neck truncation is a monogram of Gilroy Robert’s initials GR. The reverse displays the Presidential Coat of Arms in the center: an eagle with outstretched wings, shield over the body, left claw (viewer’s right) holding a bundle of arrows, the right an olive branch, and in its beak the end of a curved banner displaying E PLURIBUS UNUM. Between the left wing and the eagle’s head are four tiny five-point stars, joined by nine more in an arc above the banner. Above those nine stars is an arc of thirteen connected dot-like clouds. Extending upward from the top of the eagle through the clouds are sun-like rays. Concentric to the flat rim is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA at the top and HALF DOLLAR at the bottom, the two phrases separated by centered dots. Between the text and the eagle is a concentric circle of 50 small five-point stars. Frank Gasparro’s initials FG are between the eagle’s tail and the left leg. Silver Kennedy half dollars were minted at Philadelphia and Denver; the D mintmark is to the left of the bottom tip of the olive branch.
A few thousand business strike silver Kennedy half dollars have been certified, more from the Philadelphia Mint. Prices are modest through MS66, expensive as MS67, and very expensive as MS68. Special Mint Set 1964 halves are expensive at lower grades, very expensive as MS67 and finer. Several thousand proof silver 1964 Kennedy halves have been certified, including many as Cameo and Deep Cameo. Proofs are modestly priced through PR69, expensive as PR70; Deep Cameo 1964 examples are expensive as PR69. Heavily Accented Hair Deep Cameo pieces are expensive as PR66 and finer.
Designer: Gilroy Roberts, obverse; Frank Gasparro, reverse
Circulation Mintage: high 273,304,004 (1964), low 156,205,446 (1964-D)
Proof Mintage: high 3,950,762 (1964 only)
Denomination: Fifty cents (50/100)
Diameter: 30.6 mm; reeded edge
Metal Content: 90% silver, 10% copper
Weight: 12.50 grams
Varieties: A few known, including 1964 Heavily Accented Hair (proofs only; individual hairs are more apparent), 1964 and 1964-D Doubled Die Obverse; and other minor die variations.
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.
In retrospect it’s arguable that in creating the Kennedy half, the Mint and Congress set in motion a perfect storm for the disappearance of the denomination. As the article pointed out nearly all of the 64’s vanished as mementos, and the foolish decision to continue minting in clad silver until 1969 sealed its fate. The latter led to an enormous amount of “myth”information; even 4 decades later I still encounter people who are hoarding post-1971 halves in the mistaken belief that those coins contain silver as well.
I’m afraid that once the cent vanishes as it has in Canada and Australia, we’ll be making change using only 3 denominations.
I just read your comment, which I know was made almost a year ago. I must say that I am in complete agreement with you. My great grandmother in her 80’s use to buy a roll of half dollars every month with her SSI check. When she passed away, she left behind probably $500 in coins. In any given store, you will not find a designated slot for half dollars in the cash register. The denomination is rarely ever seen in use. Cash for that matter is a dying medium of exchange as more people prefer to use a credit or debit card. So what does this mean for the future of coins? Time will tell.
I ha e a 1964 kennedy half dollar no mint mark. It also has a third set of ignitals. “GR” is on the right side between the eagles leg and the bottom if olive branch where the mintmark should be. Do you have information on the origins of this coin?