It is hard to imagine anything special about a half dollar that has a combined Philadelphia and Denver mintage of more than 450 million pieces, but that is the case with the 1971 Kennedy half dollars. What makes them special is that the 1971 halves were the first coins of that denomination issued for circulation that contained no silver.
Today that might not seem significant, but the half dollar, which had first been released in 1794, had played an important role in the circulating coins of the United States. The half dollar had been the most effective regularly circulating silver denomination in the early years of the republic. Yes, there were silver dollars, but silver dollar production had been suspended in 1804. When it was resumed, there were quickly gold dollars and then paper dollars, so in fact many Americans found substitutes for using the large silver dollars.
The half dollar, however, had no gold or paper substitute with the exception of Fractional Currency during the Civil War, and during that period few coins of any denomination could be found in circulation.
The Kennedy half dollar had perhaps been the most widely followed and studied coin of all the half dollars in the history of the United States. For whatever reason, the Kennedy half dollar was always making headlines. It had been that way right from the start. The Kennedy half was the nation’s tribute to a fallen leader. It was more than just a coin in many minds. The Kennedy half dollar was a symbol, something everyone had to own. On the day it was first released in 1964, lines formed at banks and limits were imposed simply to try to stretch the supply.
It is probable that no coin in the history of the United States had such an opening day. It took months of heavy production of the new Kennedy design before supply could catch up to demand.
In 1965, the Kennedy half dollar was back under scrutiny. The half had taken on a rather unique role. The silver content of the dime and quarter had been eliminated. The silver in the half had been reduced to 40 percent, but there still was silver, making it the only U.S. circulating coin at that time to contain any silver. Like the others, the Kennedy half dollar lost its mintmarks.
The unique role of the half dollar continued through 1970. Mintmarks came back in 1968. It continued to circulate, though not widely, as its modest silver content was not enough to encourage hoarding. In 1970, however, there was no business strike half dollar production. San Francisco produced proofs and Denver produced 2,150,000 for mint sets.
When the Kennedy half dollar business strike production began again in 1971, it was significant. It had new obverse and reverse hubs and no silver. It marked the end of an era, not only for the half dollar, but for the United States. There would never again be a circulating coin of the United States that would contain silver.
The 1971 Kennedy half dollars did not turn out to be anything special from a rarity standpoint. The Philadelphia production was 155,164,000, while the Denver total stood at 302,097,424. That is a sizable number of half dollars, so while the rarity aspects of the 1971 Philadelphia and Denver half dollars are not great, there is no way of disputing their historical significance. The 1971 half dollars mark the final victory of clad coinage over silver.