US Coins

Kennedy half dollar does not resonate like it did in the past

The Kennedy half dollar was wildly popular when introduced into circulation a half century ago. Today, many would likely not even recognize it as a U.S. coin.

Coin World images.

Where were you when John F. Kennedy was shot on Nov. 22, 1963? According to the census, and the generally accepted demographics of numismatics, more than two-thirds of current coin collectors were alive when that tragedy occurred. I was inside my mother’s womb, to be born the following January when I was middle-named “Kent” in remembrance of the slain president.

The Kennedy half dollar has always been a neglected coin. As a child, I never used them, and always wanted to trade them for quarters, which fit into video games, Coke machines, and carnival rides. Whenever someone gave me a Kennedy half dollar, I always tried to spend it because it wouldn’t fit in the slot on my piggy bank. Unlike some classic coins like the “Buffalo nickel,” a true masterpiece, or the ubiquitous Wheat “penny,” the Kennedy half was always an awkward and unexciting coin.

As an adult collector, Kennedy halves were the last modern set that I collected, and even then I did not bother to collect them in the highest grades or with a constant eye to upgrading (I still, decades later, replace Buffalo nickels and Lincoln cents and others when I stumble onto a superior coin).

Yet the Mint is issuing some special Kennedy coins in 2014 including a Reverse Proof half dollar, and given recent history, there is likely to be considerable excitement and demand, particularly for the gold version. But what is the place of the Kennedy half dollar in modern U.S. coinage, and what is its status culturally? Would my college-age children even recognize one if they received it in change? When visiting the college cafeteria recently the staff person refused to take my Presidential dollars or Kennedy halves because the till “didn’t have trays for them.”

The colorful history of the half dollar is sometimes forgotten: some banks “sold out” of the new Kennedy halves by noon the first day; dealers expected to sell Uncirculated coins at a premium from the first day onward; the coins were immediately popular overseas within a huge secondary market; varieties were identified very early, like the early Proof Accented Hair variety supposedly created as a result of a demand by Jackie to keep her husband’s appearance as true to life as possible.

But the excitement died down quickly. The coins didn’t circulate (in part because of the early collecting/hoarding phase), the silver content was reduced (1965) and then eliminated (1971), and by 2002 the Mint stopped producing them for circulation completely, and hasn’t struck any since except those for collector sales. So, where does this leave things? 

It is likely that the early excitement about the 50th Anniversary Kennedy issues will grow and continue through the sales period and immediately thereafter. But that may say more about the Mint’s recent marketing tactics and special production methods than about the Kennedy half dollar itself. The design came about as a result of a national tragedy that was a kind of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor of its day. The cultural relevance of the Kennedy assassination has faded to cable television shows about conspiracy theories, and political science classes analyzing the Cuban Missile Crisis. The coin and what it commemorated don’t resonate like they did 50 years ago.

The Kennedy half dollar frames my entire life, 50 years during which I became and have remained an avid coin collector since early youth and through many phases of adulthood. I would be sad to see the Kennedy half dollar go, maybe, since it represents something familiar and comfortable. I do remember the days in the early 1980s when I would buy rolls of Kennedys and cull them for 40 percent silver halves, and the occasional 1964 coin or Franklin half dollar. But I also remember that the Kennedy half was mainly a nonactor on my dramatic collecting stage. When my grandmother gave me a bunch of common, circulated Kennedys she had saved because she knew I collected coins, I was properly thankful. But you can guess what I was really thinking — when can I stop by the bank and change them for bills?

So, let’s celebrate 50 years of memories, and let’s never forget President Kennedy and what he meant to Americans, and let’s enjoy the Mint’s gold offerings and special strikes like the Reverse Proof Kennedy issues, but let’s also consider letting an old dog retire quietly. A celebration can also be a retirement party.

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