For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, United States coins depicted a figure of Liberty on its coinage. While specific people may have been used as models for the coins, the portraits were meant to be vague and emblematic. This trend changed in 1909 with the introduction of the Lincoln cent. For the first time, the United States Mint struck a circulating coin with a president on it. Along these same lines, the Washington Quarter was unveiled in 1932 and the Jefferson Nickel shortly thereafter in 1938.
The half dollar was a further separation from this trend. Not only was Liberty exchanged for a specific person, but the honoree was not even a former president. U.S. Mint chief engraver John R. Sinnock, in deciding on a new design for the half dollar, chose to depict Benjamin Franklin. Given Franklin’s status as a founding father and a tremendous participant in our country’s early history, his appearance on a coin was still well-received.
His design depicts a head and shoulders portrait of Franklin on the obverse, facing right, with LIBERTY above and IN GOD WE TRUST below. The date is displayed to the right. On the reverse is the Liberty Bell with the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA above and HALF DOLLAR below. The motto E PLURIBUS UNUM is to the left, while a small eagle is to the right, thus meeting the requirement of the Coinage Act of 1792 that an eagle appear on the reverse of all silver coins.
At the time of issue, the design was severely criticized by the general public for being plain and simplistic. Engraver John Sinnock had a tough act to follow, as the preceding Walking Liberty design was considered one of the most beautiful to ever appear on a United States coin. Despite the initial public backlash, Franklin half dollars have since emerged as a popular collectible in the numismatic arena.
There are no scarce dates in the Franklin half dollar series, but finding coins in ultra-high grades can be difficult. Most dates exist in MS 66, but MS 67 specimens are quite scarce. As bigger coins with large unprotected areas on the obverse, Franklin halves are quite susceptible to ticks and marks (hence the scarcity of MS 67 coins). Fully struck coins (especially those with full bell lines on the reverse) can be tricky to find. Proofs were made continuously from 1950 through 1963 and are readily available, even in Gem Proof or better.