In the days and weeks following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a nation in mourning rushed to honor the beloved late President. Bridges, airports, and more were swiftly named or renamed for him. Kennedy was assassinated on a Friday; by the following Wednesday, a decision had already been made to honor him on a newly-designed half dollar coin. Initial consideration was also given to the quarter, but Mrs. Kennedy did not want her husband’s portrait to supplant George Washington’s likeness.
The Director of the US Mint, Eva Adams, called the Chief Engraver, Gilroy Roberts, to inform him of the decision. Roberts had previously designed a profile portrait of Kennedy, cast in bronze for the US Mint’s Presidential Medal series. This portrait appeared on the obverse, while Roberts’ longtime Assistant Engraver, Frank Gasparro, had designed the reverse. Both designers used their respective designs for the Kennedy medal as basis for the new Kennedy half dollar.
Roberts and Gasparro needed to work quickly, as all involved in the process were under significant time pressure. With a new design pending, the Mint did not want to produce any Franklin half dollars for 1964, even though the first were scheduled to be produced in January. Trial strikes were produced by the middle of December and reviewed by Mrs. Kennedy and the late President’s brother, US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Slight revisions were made, and the design of the new half dollar was ready in just over a month. Production of regular issue coinage began at the Denver mint on January 30, 1964.
A bureaucratic obstacle to the accelerated timeline presented itself: according to a law dating from 1890, the designs of circulation coinage could only be replaced every twenty-five years. Franklin half dollars had only been in production for fifteen years. Congress intervened to ensure the legality of the new half dollar coin, and President Johnson signed a law permitting the new design on December 30, 1963.
The market also demanded swift work, as the Kennedy half dollar came to fruition at a key moment in the history of American coinage. All silver circulation coins were in short supply at the time. Inflation and a rising silver price had driven collectors to hoarding 90% silver coinage.
The 1964 half dollars quickly sold out upon their release on March 24. Demand was insatiable. Production was increased from a planned 90 million to an astonishing 430 million pieces – more than the combined number of all circulation Franklin halves made over the preceding fifteen years! Congress specially authorized production of 1964-dated coins to continue into 1965, one of the few instances of such an arrangement in US history.
To ease the continuing pressure on circulation coinage, Congress eliminated silver from the dime and quarter with the Coinage Act of 1965. A compromise was reached for the new Kennedy half dollar: the overall silver content was reduced to 40% for 1965. The remaining silver content was eliminated starting with the 1971 issues. The mint has issued 90% silver proof versions for collectors since 1992; these are the only other versions which retain the original silver composition of the 1964 coins.
Few 1964 Kennedy half dollars ever circulated. Subsequent increases in the price of silver resulted in many being melted down for their metal content. While they are not rare, they are unique in the history of American coins struck for circulation.