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Franklin Half Dollars 1948-1963 Coin Guide

Franklin Half Dollar

The Franklin Half Dollar was minted from 1948 to 1963. It is an unusual coin in that it celebrates an American citizen who was not a United States president. The coin pictured Benjamin Franklin on the obverse and the Liberty Bell on the reverse. A small eagle was placed to the right of the bell to fulfill the legal requirement that a half dollar depict an eagle. A bill rushed through Congress after the assassination of John F. Kennedy caused the Franklin half to be replaced by the current Kennedy half dollar in February 1964, nine years before the design would otherwise have been eligible for a change. Franklin halves were made in 90 percent silver with a reeded edge. They were struck at the mints in Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco. Proof issues of the coin were struck at the Philadelphia Mint only from 1950 to 1963.

Nellie Tayloe Ross, the Mint Director, was an admirer of Franklin. She chose him because he was one of the Founding Fathers who had great stature among his contemporaries here and in Europe. Franklin was well known as an author, publisher, printer, scientist, inventor, and statesman. By securing vital aid from France, he played an important role in helping the colonies to gain independence from England. Because Ross wanted Franklin depicted on coin, she instructed John R. Sinnock, the Mint Chief Engraver, to design a half dollar with his effigy. Although the coin was based on his earlier work, Sinnock died before the coin’s completion. Gilroy Roberts, the new Chief Engraver, completed the coin. When the new design was submitted to the Commission of Fine Arts, it was criticized because it emphasized the crack in the Liberty Bell. The committee also felt that the eagle was too small. Despite their disapproval, the Mint went ahead with Sinnock’s design.

When the coin was released, it was criticized because of the designer’s initials. It was said that JRS, for John R. Sinnock, was really a tribute to Communist dictator Joseph Stalin. No change was made. The Mint simply said that JRS were the designer’s initials.

Ironically Franklin, like Washington, had opposed putting portraits on coins. He favored proverbs with which the holder could benefit from reflection. Ross felt that Franklin only knew of living monarchs on coins. She felt that he would have felt differently about a republic honoring a deceased founder. In an article in the April 1990 Numismatist, writer Jonathan Topper felt that Franklin would probably have been more upset about the reverse. He said, “Had Benjamin Franklin known that he would be appearing on a half dollar with an eagle, he most likely would have been quite upset. He detested the eagle, and numismatic lore has it that he often referred to it as a scavenger. Given the practical man that he was, Franklin proposed the wild turkey as our national bird.” Franklin became the fifth person and first non-president to be place on a regular issue United States coin. The others are Lincoln in 1909, Franklin Roosevelt in 1946, Washington in 1932, and Jefferson in 1938. The use of Franklin’s portrait completed the conversion of United States coin designs from allegorical figures to portraits of historically important Americans. It also ended what many feel was the golden age of coinage art in the United States, which included the designs of the Walking Liberty half dollar, the Winged Liberty Head “Mercury” Dime, the Standing Liberty quarter, and the Saint-Gaudens eagle and double eagle.

Sinnock’s obverse design is based on a medal of Franklin that Sinnock had designed earlier from a bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon. The reverse was based on the reverse of the Sesquicentennial of American Independence commemorative half dollar of 1926. The Liberty Bell was taken from a sketch by John Frederick Lewis in 1926; however, Sinnock did not give him credit for it. Numismatic reference books now belatedly credit Lewis for his role in the design.

The portrait of Franklin is designed with simple lines. He is depicted wearing a suit from his time period. The close portrait in profile is facing right. Above his head is LIBERTY, and IN GOD WE TRUST is below. The date is in the right field between his chin and chest. The reverse shows a large Liberty Bell showing its crack. UNITED STATES oF AMERICA is in an arc above, and the denomination written as HALF DOLLAR is below. To the left of the bell is the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM in small letters balanced by a small eagle, which was not part of the original design, to the right. The coin was made in 90 percent silver and has a reeded edge. The mintmark, when used, appears on the reverse above the bell. The reverse’s eagle was added by Gilroy Roberts as an afterthought when the Mint officials realized that the Coinage Act of 1873 mandated an eagle be displayed on all coins of greater value than a dime.

In January 1948, Ross made a speech when she unveiled the new coin. She said that she had been encouraged to put Franklin on the cent because of his fondness for the proverb “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Actually his original was, “A penny saved is two pence dear.” Ross said that she favored Franklin on the large coin because it was an “impressive effect.” When the coins were released, the public wanted to know how Mint officials found out Joseph Stalin’s middle initial. They also felt that the small o in “of” was an error, and the entire issue would be recalled.

There are 35 dates and mintmarks in the series, so it is an inexpensive series to collect in less than pristine grades. Those with deeper pockets may wish to assemble date-and-mint sets in MS-65 and above or collections of high-grade proof Franklins with deep cameo contrast. The cameo proofs with frosted surfaces and mirrored fields are available in small numbers and often carry a large premium in higher grades. The 1956 proof coin with the earlier reverse is an example. Well struck circulation strikes have full bell lines. The seven lines at the bottom of the bell must be fully visible and not blended together. Certain dates with full bell lines also carry large premiums. The 1953-S is an example of such a date. Using mintage figures the key dates in the series are 1948, 1949-S, 1953, and 1955. However, because of extensive melting for bullion, other dates command a premium, for example, 1949-D, 1950-D, and 1960-D.
Because it is so compact, the series is widely collected by date and mint. In examining the Franklin half, the first points to show wear are on Franklin’s cheek, shoulder, and hair behind the ear on the obverse; and the lettering and lines on the Liberty Bell on the reverse. Since the details of the obverse are often indistinct, sharpness of strike is generally ignored. All dates are available in grades of VF and finer. Lower Mint State coins can be unattractive because of abrasion and contact marks which are especially noticeable on the obverse. Higher end gems are generally available; however, FBL coins and deep cameo proofs, as noted above, can be costly. Coins below XF are generally held only for their bullion value.

Specifications:
Weight: 12.50 grams
Composition: .900 silver, .100 copper
Diameter: 30.6 millimeters
Edge: reeded
Net Weight: .36169 ounces ASW

Half Dollars




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