It’s hard to believe it’s been 60 years since America’s 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was shot and killed while campaigning for reelection in Dallas, Texas.
The youngest U.S. president ever elected, he also became the youngest to die in office.
In recognition of the popular president’s achievements and legacy, it was decided to honor him on a U.S. coin. Four of the five circulating coins of the time already honored presidents – the Lincoln cent, Jefferson nickel, Roosevelt dime and Washington quarter. And at the time, dollar coins were no longer issued.
That left the half dollar.
So despite being introduced just 15 years earlier, the Franklin half dollar was retired. And in its place, the Kennedy half dollar was born.
The 2023 Kennedy half dollars mark the 60th anniversary of the transition. So let’s take the opportunity to look back at the series’ beginnings…
Just two months from concept to coinage
It’s said the government moves at a snail’s pace when it comes to creating anything new – and with good reason. But that wasn’t the case for the new coin honoring America’s 35th president.
In fact, just the opposite. The Kennedy half dollar saw the fastest development and introduction of any coin in the nation’s history.
U.S. Mint chief engraver Gilroy Roberts designed the obverse after a portrait prepared for Kennedy’s presidential medal (with some improvements suggested by Jackie Kennedy, the president’s widow). While assistant engraver Frank Gasparro based the reverse on the Presidential Seal.
The eye-catching designs were approved within weeks, and Congressional approval swiftly followed. And in January 1964 – less than two months after the president’s death – the first Kennedy half dollars rolled off the U.S. Mint’s presses.
From Circulating Silver to Clad Composition
Other than slight modifications, the Kennedy half dollar design has remained unchanged with one exception: the special Bicentennial issues that featured dual dates (1776-1976) and a new reverse depicting Independence Hall. In 1977, the series returned to its original Eagle reverse.
However, that’s not to say the series didn’t see numerous changes.
Like every half dollar series since 1837, the original 1964 Kennedy half dollars were minted in 90% silver. But in 1965, only the second year of the series, the silver content was reduced to 40%.
Things changed again in 1971. This time, silver was removed in favor of the copper-nickel clad composition we have today.
Four years later, the San Francisco Mint struck some Bicentennial issues in 40% silver for collectors. But after that, collectors would have to wait 16 years to see more silver issues.
From 1992–2018, Kennedy half dollar Proofs were once again minted in 90% silver. And since 2019, they’ve been struck in 99.9% silver.
Finally, in 2014 the series 50th anniversary with special gold Kennedy half dollars struck at West Point – the first gold halves ever offered by the U.S. Mint.
Limited Mintage and Highly Collectible
From the very beginning, Kennedy half dollars have been loved by numismatists and the public alike. But despite this, today’s mintages are but a fraction of those the series once enjoyed.
As more and more people switched from using cash to cards in commerce, fewer Kennedy halves were needed in circulation. And with rising production costs, the mint made the historic decision to change the coin’s status from “circulating coin” to “circulating coin collectible.”
Since 2002, Kennedy half dollars have been primarily minted just for collectors. Few dates in the series have been released into circulation, and then only when requested by the Federal Reserve.
But that hasn’t made the series any less popular.
In a 2016 poll Kennedy halves tied for first place as the most interesting coin among newer collectors. And in 2019, a rare 1965 Kennedy half dollar graded SP67 sold for a record $108,000 at auction.
Of course, that was a rare and exciting exception. Most dates are far more affordable and readily available. In fact, a complete collection of Uncirculated Kennedy Halves is within the reach and budget of nearly any collector.
Many seek to achieve just that, and it’s easy to see why.
In addition to being hard to find in commerce today, their large size… popular theme… striking designs… historical significance and limited mintages make Kennedy halves the perfect coin for collectors of modern U.S. coinage.
And we can expect their popularity to continue to climb. Especially since 2023 Kennedy half dollars mark the 60th anniversary of JFK’s death. And next year marks the 60th anniversary of the series’ debut.
Until next time… Happy Collecting!
PS: Looking to update your collection with 2023 Kennedy half dollars? You’ll find a wide selection of these and other dates for sale in Littleton’s latest Hard to Find Coins catalog (request your FREE copy here) and at LittletonCoin.com.