Editor’s note: In his August monthly Coin World cover
feature, Gerald Tebben looks back at the story of the John F.
Kennedy half dollar as the numismatic community celebrates the
coin's 50th anniversary. This is one of a series of articles from
this feature that will appear online at CoinWorld.com.
Make sure you read other posts in the series:
Government approves coin
On Dec. 10, 1963, President Lyndon Johnson asked
Congress to authorize the new Kennedy coin. The Associated Press
reported, “If approved quickly, present plans are to have the coin in
circulation early next year.
“The design — to be taken
from a ‘presidential series medal’ now being produced in Philadelphia
— is already in existence and little cost or delay would be entailed
in making new dies, the White House said.”
The cost was
estimated at $1,000. The bill quickly and nearly unanimously passed
both houses of Congress. “Few House members, however, were willing to
risk a vote at this time against anything carrying the Kennedy name.”
Elston G. Bradfield reported in The Numismatist. Johnson signed
the bill Dec. 30.
Mint officials, however, did not wait
for formal approval of the legislation to make the necessary hub and
die tooling, and start producing test strikes of the 1964 coins even
before the bill became law. In his report to Adams on April 29,
Gasparro wrote, “At 9 a.m. on Dec. 13th we struck our first trial
(pattern) pieces.” That same day he flew to Washington to deliver the
coins to Adams who, in turn, sent them to Treasury Secretary Douglas
Dillon and President Johnson.
On Dec. 17, Roberts showed
a prototype of the coin to the president’s widow. He told interviewer
David Lisot in a videotaped American
Numismatic Association Numismatic Profile in 1991, “They wanted
Mrs. Kennedy to see — this is the portrait that is on the half dollar.
And I had emphasized the part in his hair.
“He had a
great shock of hair as you recall, and most artists, when they did a
Kennedy portrait, they made a lot of this shock of hair, thinking
that’s going to help them to make it look like Kennedy, you know.
Well, they were right, but they had a tendency to overemphasize this
part in his hair. And Mrs. Kennedy looked at the coin, and she said,
‘Could you muss up his hair a little bit?’
“All right, I
thought, that was a wonderful criticism. She was a bit of an artist
herself, and I think that aspect of the likeness was the first thought
in her mind. It was very helpful, so I mussed up his hair and sort of
half hid the part, made it less obvious, which helped. It was good
criticism so I thanked her, too, for that helpful hint.”
The obverse design was revised to “muss” the hair and another trial
strike made. Roberts flew to West Palm Beach, Fla., Dec. 27 to show
the revised design to the Treasury secretary, who signed off on
Even before the coinage change became law, public
interest was intense and growing. On Dec. 28 Mint Director Eva Adams
said the Mint had received 8,000 letters in the previous week about
the planned coin. “Thirty-one employees of the bureau are opening such
mail and trying to answer it,” The Milwaukee Journal
No patterns are known today, except for one
mysterious piece that the late John J. Ford Jr. said he bought in a
small mail auction Nov. 27, 1973. The aluminum piece — Pollock 2080 in
the reference book on patterns by Andrew W. Pollock III — shows
Roberts’ portrait of Kennedy on both sides and nothing else.
Ford recounted, “Tracing its history, I understand that it was
originally found in an ash tray, in the bar of the Mayflower Hotel,
Production dies were completed Jan. 2,
and Proof production began almost immediately. Roberts reported that
the first circulation-strike coins were produced at Denver Jan. 30.
The Philadelphia Mint ramped up production the following week.
Ceremonial first strikes were made at 11 a.m. EST Feb. 11
simultaneously at the Philadelphia and Denver Mints.
ceremony was reported on front pages across the country, often
accompanied by photos of the new coins. The first four from each Mint
facility were given to President Johnson for presentation to Mrs.
The Associated Press report on the ceremony
noted, “The Kennedy half dollar is not a commemorative coin. When 26
million are made, they will be released to the public — in March or
On March 6, 1964, the Mint shipped the first
coins to Federal Reserve banks. Public release was set for March
Banks across the country were inundated and distribution
limited. In Florida, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported local
banks were allocated one coin for every $12,000 in deposits. A week
before the release, the Planters Bank & Trust Co. of Hopkinsville,
Ky., ran an ad in the Kentucky New Era telling customers distribution
would be limited to one coin per person.
“You are invited
to get your Kennedy Half-Dollar at any Planters Bank office — while
our supply lasts,” the ad ran.
Supplies did not last long at the
Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. The Associated Press reported,
“The new John F. Kennedy half-dollar — 26 million of them — went on
sale at banks throughout the nation Tuesday. Within two hours the U.S.
Treasury was out of the 70,000 it had allotted its own cash
“Shouts of anger and disappointment from the
long line waiting outside greeted the announcement that the temporary
supply was exhausted.”
The coin proved immensely popular.
Banks across the country quickly exhausted their supply. Those lucky
enough to get some found a ready market at home and abroad.
Writing in the St. Petersburg Independent in 1967, coin
columnist Earl Campbell recalled those days.
“Next it was
found that people in many foreign countries also wanted the coins as
keepsakes,” he wrote. “There were stories of people financing trips to
Hong Kong with a few rolls of Kennedy halves. American tourists
exchanging the halves, one or two, for a night’s lodging in the best
hotels in Europe and a great underground network that was quietly
sending the half dollars into the foreign market to meet the
Kennedy half dollars, even 50 years on, are
still cherished by their owners.
In his 1999 memoir
Walking with the Wind, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a Civil Rights
activist, wrote: “Kennedy represented hope and possibility to most of
America, white and black alike, and when he died, that flame of
optimism in all of us flickered just a little bit lower. To this day I
have a place in my heart for him. When the Kennedy half dollars came
out, I collected them, and I still collect them to this day. I have a
box at home filled with them.”
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profile of the Kennedy half dollar. Or, better yet, let us tell you
when a new post is up: