US Coins

Strangeness in the 1960s

Recent finds in rolls of half dollars included three Uncirculated 1964 Kennedy half dollars, an example of which is shown above. Some readers wonder, however, how Uncirculated coins can be found in circulation.

Images by Bill O'Rourke.

Snapshots taken at different times reflect changes in popularity. This week I go back more than 45 years to 1964 and 1965. Coin World, founded in 1960, enjoyed over 100,000 circulation. My “Numismatic Depth Study” column in Coin World, predecessor to today’s “Joys of Collecting,” was a reader favorite.

The difference between 1964 and 1965 was like day and night. In early 1964, Lincoln cents were plentiful in circulation, ditto for Jefferson 5-cent coins, Roosevelt dimes, Washington quarter dollars, and Walking Liberty and Franklin half dollars. The higher denominations were made of 90 percent silver. Some banks still had silver dollars in their vaults, payable at face value, and at the Treasury Department in January untold millions were still available. Supplies ran out in March of that year, and the Treasury called a halt to the dispersal.

On international markets, the cost of silver bullion was rising. It seemed that soon it would take more than 50 cents worth of that metal to make a half dollar, and other silver denominations would have the same problem. If you have an interest in numismatic tradition you know that history repeats itself. The exact same thing happened in 1850 when silver became too costly to use for current coins. Just about every one in circulation disappeared into the hands of speculators and few new such coins were made. In 1851 the silver 3-cent coins were made with just 75 percent silver instead of 90 percent silver, so people wouldn’t hoard them.

In 1965, silver was dropped from the dime and quarter dollar, and the Kennedy half dollar, now the second year of the design, was made in a special clad metal with sharply reduced silver content.

The price of silver continued to go up. Untold numbers of silver coins from earlier years were in circulation. Speculators and investors scrambled to find all they could, for it was now profitable to melt them down. Oddly, Lincoln cents, of no particular intrinsic value at the time, were also hoarded by the public — so much so that some stores ran advertisements offering to pay a slight premium for quantities.

The Mint director at the time was Eva Adams. She blamed collectors for the shortages of all coins. In response to Mint requests, Congress ordered Mint marks removed from current issues, making them less interesting to collect, and also froze the dates on the dies, with 1964, 1965 and 1966 coins struck past their calendar years. In addition, Proof set production was terminated.

Q. David Bowers is chairman emeritus of Stack’s Bowers Galleries and numismatic director of Whitman Publishing LLC. He can be reached at his private email,, or at Q. David Bowers, LLC, Box 1804, Wolfeboro, NH 03894.

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