Q. David Bowers (derived from the PCGS Coin Guide): Unlike dimes and quarters, half dollars have attracted a large and loyal following of numismatists, almost from the cradle days of the hobby. This is due no doubt to the fact that early 19th century issues were minted in very large quantities, second only to one-cent pieces in terms of production, and are thus readily available for reasonable prices. Nothing stimulates interest in a series more than to have an inexpensive and easy entry. This is precisely why Morgan silver dollars, once collected by very few, have been high on the popularity list ever since the Treasury Department released untold millions of them in 1962-1964.
Back to the subject of half dollars: The denomination was first minted for circulation in 1794. In this and the following year the Flowing Hair motif was used, the same design employed on half dimes and dollars of the same dates. The denomination appeared nowhere on the obverse or reverse but was relegated to the edge, which was lettered 50 CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR. Today the 1794 half dollar is multiples rarer than the 1795, as might be expected from the relative mintage figures: 23,464 pieces produced dated 1794 and 299,680 with the 1795 date. As noted earlier, such figures must be taken with a grain of salt. Although the numbers seem precise enough, in reality it may have been the case that certain pieces included in the 1795 number were made from leftover 1794 dies.
One of the most famous of all American coin design types is the 1796-1797 Draped Bust half dollar design with Small Eagle reverse. Just 3,918 were minted for these two years, divided into three distinct varieties: 1796 with 15 stars on the obverse, 1796 with 16 stars, and 1797 (all 1797 pieces have 15 stars). Why the variation in the star counts? This has never been satisfactorily explained, although a likely suggestion is that during this time additional states were being added to the Union, giving a reason to increase the star count from the normal 13. However, in practice those individuals making dies at the Mint seemed to have added stars or to fill out the design in an aesthetic manner, without regard as to how many states were or were not in the Union, although the star count never fell below 13 nor did it exceed 16.
Of the 3,918 half dollars minted of the 1796-7 design type, probably fewer than 300 or 400 survive today. In higher grades, these pieces are extreme rarities, although 1796 occurs in AU and Uncirculated preservation more frequently than 1797.
After 1797 no half dollars were struck until 1801, when the Draped Bust obverse was employed with the Heraldic Eagle reverse. Half dollars of this new type were minted through 1807. As is the case with quarter dollars, those pieces toward the end of the series are nearly always seen poorly struck; this is especially true of Draped Bust halves dated 1807.
Part way through the latter year a new design was created, the Capped Bust type, said to have been the work of John Reich. Capped Bust half dollars were produced continuously through 1836, with the exception of the year 1816. At the time silver dollars were not being produced for general circulation. Therefore, it fell to the half dollar denomination to become the workhorse coin for everyday commerce. Accordingly, production was typically over a million each year, a large quantity for the time. The Capped Bust series contains many interesting variations, especially overdates.
In 1836 the half dollar design was modified to a smaller size with reeded edge, with the denomination expressed on the reverse as 50 CENTS. With a design change in 1838 (the denomination inscription was changed to read HALF DOL.) the general style was used through mid-1839. A major rarity of this era is the 1838 New Orleans issue (1838-O), of which it has been said that just 20 were struck, a statement which may indeed be true, as fewer than that number can be traced today.
Liberty Seated half dollars were first produced for circulation in 1839 and were minted continuously through 1891. Several different design variations were made during this span. In general, Liberty Seated half dollars are inexpensive, particularly in circulated grades, and the formation of a set of these can be a pleasant pastime. As is true of many series from the mid-19th century, there are numerous issues which are virtually impossible to find in higher Mint State levels, a situation which may dissuade the investor who is tuned in to hearing that something must be MS-65 to be worthwhile. However, for the knowledgeable buyer who can go beyond such market puffery, there is great satisfaction in acquiring coins which are rarities in grades such as Extremely Fine and AU. One particular rarity in the series, the 1853-O without arrows, does not exist in grades above Very Fine.
Among Liberty Seated half dollars there are many challenges. The 1842-O Small Date is rare even when worn nearly smooth, but still a numismatically acceptable piece can be acquired in the $1,000 range. Very hard to find are early Carson City issues, 1870-CC through 1873-CC, but again these are surprisingly affordable. Particularly popular, and widely available, are the low-mintage half dollars dated from 1879 through 1890. Production of these was very restricted, as the Philadelphia Mint was busy at the time turning out unprecedented quantities of Morgan silver dollars under the terms of the Bland-Allison Act. The result was that a whole string of rarities emerged from the Mint. Still, enough exist in collectors' hands that a set can be obtained today without a great deal of difficulty.
The 1886 half dollar is a case in point. Just 5,000 business strikes were minted, plus 886 Proofs. As the Proofs were specifically sold at a premium to collectors who saved them, of the 886 Proofs minted probably 500 or 600 exist today, although numerous pieces show signs of mishandling. Of the 5,000 business strikes, probably only a few hundred survive, most of which show signs of wear. All in all, it is probably correct to state that close to 1,000 half dollars bearing the date 1886 are preserved by the numismatic fraternity. This quantity is sufficient to supply those desiring an example. Numismatists forming a type set of half dollars do not need an 1886, for they can be satisfied with a less expensive date. The only buyer specifically needing an 1886-dated coin is someone putting together a date set.
Barber half dollars, produced from 1892 to 1915, have been gaining in popularity in recent years, due to the efforts of David Lange (who has written several articles about them) and the growth of the Barber Coin Collectors Society, among other considerations.
The series of Barber half dollars contains no great rarities, and completion is within the grasp of virtually everyone, although in very high grades there are several varieties which will take a long time to find.
In 1916 the Liberty Walking half dollar appeared. The work of sculptor Adolph A. Weinman, the design was produced intermittently through 1947. As with the other new 1916 silver designs - the Mercury dime and Standing Liberty quarter - the Walking Liberty half dollar immediately attracted a wide circle of numismatic friends. The popularity continues to the present day. A survey conducted by Numismatic News in 1990 found that readers selected this design as their favorite, followed by the Saint-Gaudens $20 and the Standing Liberty quarter.
Certain early issues are elusive, particularly in higher grades, but the building of a "short set" from 1941 through 1947 is a possibility for just about anyone, for Uncirculated coins exist in quantity. Those who are braver or who have better fortified checkbooks can build an expanded short set containing coins dated from 1933 through 1947. Relatively few numismatists desire to collect the entire 1916-1947 series in Uncirculated grade, for major stumbling blocks are provided by the low-mintage issues of 1921, particularly 1921-S, as well as several other key dates.
Franklin half dollars, first minted in 1948, were produced through 1963, after which time the design was hurriedly dropped to make way for the Kennedy motif, following the assassination of the president. During their time of issue Franklin halves were not popular in a large way, for many numismatists found the design to be unattractive. Pieces, if subjected to just slight handling, were apt to become scarred, particularly on the higher parts of the portrait on the obverse and on the bell on the reverse. When the series breathed its last in 1963, few lamented its passing.
In recent times there has been a revival of interest. Jack Ehrmantraut, Jr. published a study on Proof Franklin half dollars minted from 1950 through 1963, pointing out that certain issues with cameo or frosted heads were especially attractive and desirable. With the advent of the Professional Coin Grading Service and other certification companies, it has been realized that certain common Franklin half dollars are not necessarily common in MS-65 preservation.
From 1964 to date half dollars have been of the Kennedy design, with the obverse portrait by Gilroy Roberts and the reverse motif by Frank Gasparro. In 1965, the silver content of the Half Dollars was reduced from 90% to 40% and in 1971 was eliminated altogether. Shortly after producing the Kennedy half dollar, Roberts exited the Mint and became a major factor in the launching of Joseph Segel's General Numismatics Corporation, later renamed the Franklin Mint. This private minting enterprise was certainly one of the greatest numismatic financial success stories of all time. For the Franklin Mint Roberts designed many limited edition medals, achieving a personal wealth which no other former Mint chief engraver had ever enjoyed. A minor mystery is this: While millions of business strike Kennedy half dollars are produced each year, such pieces are hardly ever seen in circulation. What happens to them all?