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Viewpoint: Half dollar vanishes from circulation


By:  William Tuttle
In the days of yesteryear, the half dollar used to circulate widely along with other silver coins of the era both in the U.S. and Canada. I can remember as a young boy of 10 or so getting a half dollar in change when I gave a dollar for 50 cents worth of merchandise, or a half and a quarter for 25 cents worth. Having that 50-cent piece in my pocket made me feel like a millionaire (Howard Hughs, or John D. Rockefeller), you know?

Then came 1965, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in ‘63, and silver coins were withdrawn from circulation, being replaced by the copper-nickel “sandwiches” we have now. The “Kennedys” were changed to a 40 percent “silver sandwich” up to 1969. Then they went to the copper-nickel composition like the other coins from a dime up. Despite the composition change, the “JFK’s” still circulated, but were declining in numbers found in circulation. By the time of the celebration of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution, half dollars had pretty much disappeared from circulation.

In 1979, the U.S. government decided to reduce the size of the dollar coin from 38.1 mm to 26.5 mm for the Susan B. Anthony (“SBA”) dollar, later reducing it another millimeter for the “golden” dollar. But the half dollar remained the same size, basically as it has been since the mid 19th century. Even though “JFKs” were available from banks and the mints, few continued to see genuine circulation. Why is that?

Former ANA Education Director shares information about the Capped Bust half dollar series that has been a collector favorite for decades.

Former ANA Education Director shares information about the Capped Bust half dollar series that has been a collector favorite for decades.

I can only speculate and give suggestions to the remedy of the “vanishing half dollar.” With the quarter being 24.3 mm in size, the SBA follar at 26.5 mm, and the half being 30.6 mm; with all three coins the same composition, there was confusion as to which was a quarter, half, or follar.

When “Susie” first came out, the bus fare was $1, which I used the coin to pay regularly. There were a few bus drivers who weren’t aware of the change in the follar coin and would argue with me that I paid too little (25 cents) for the fare. Today, the follar coin and its paper counterpart are widely accepted in the fare tills. But the half is not because it is too big to fit into the coin slot. Therefore, the quarter has become the work horse coin for payments starting at 25 cents.

Another issue against the use of the half dollar is weight. A current half weighs 11.34 grams, quarters are 5.67 grams and dollar coins are a little over 8 grams (8.1 g for “Susie” and 8.07 for the “goldies”).

Therefore, it is lighter to have a dollar coin (about 8 grams) than two half dollars (22.68 grams) in your pocket. It is also lighter and better than having four quarters (22.68 grams) in your pocket.

In the defense of keeping the paper dollar and dropping the coin, Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., declared, “most men don’t want their pockets weighed down by coins.” Mr. Clay, I respectfully ask, how many coins do you carry in your pockets on a daily basis?

Some people are in favor of doing away with the half follar because it has virtually disappeared from circulation, yet is available in banks for the asking. I think it would be wrong to eliminate the half from “the system.” It would be better to resize the half dollar to a size half that of the current dollar coin.

The euro model is a good example. From the 1 euro cent to the euro, the coins are more or less uniform in progressive size and/or weight, unlike the U.S. coins. Our coins are still the basic sizes of coins of the late 18th century Europe. Should the government copy the European system, as it did in 1792, making the coins lighter and smaller, the half dollar, I feel, will circulate.

This “Viewpoint” was written by William B. Tuttle of Cleveland, Ohio. Viewpoint is a forum for the expression of opinion on a variety of numismatic subjects. To have your opinion considered for Viewpoint, write to David C. Harper, Editor, Numismatic News, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990. Send email to david.harper@fwmedia.com.

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