While the dollar was almost always regarded as the most prestigious US silver coin, it was not consistently produced. The half dollar was in fact much more important in everyday commerce and the development of the American economy. Its absence from today’s circulating coinage belies this important role it played in the monetary history of the United States.
The half dollar has been produced since 1794, and in every single year since 1817. It is the only US coin other than the penny to be produced so consistently. The fledgling Mint delivered its first batch of about five thousand half dollars in December 1794. Like other US coins, the half dollar underwent design changes soon after its introduction. The initial Flowing Hair design was replaced with a more buxom Draped Bust design in 1796. Draped Bust half dollars produced in 1796 and 1797 are some of the rarest US coins due to low mintages. Production of the half dollar ceased in 1797, and the design was revived with a revised reverse design in 1801.
The Capped Bust half dollar design, featuring an even more well-endowed Lady Liberty, was introduced in 1807. Half dollars from this era are some of the most highly sought after in the series. Due to a destructive fire at the Mint in early 1816, no half dollars were produced that year. The introduction of steam-powered equipment in 1836 resulted in a subtle change for the Capped Bust half dollar’s last few years of production: rather than a lettered edge like their predecessors, they have a reeded edge like the smaller denomination silver coins of this era.
After four design changes and various production interruptions in the half dollar’s first years of existence, its subsequent history is much more stable. The Seated Liberty coinage motif was introduced on all US silver coins in the late 1830s. These designs would remain on the dime, quarter, and half dollar for more than half a century. The Philadelphia Mint produced Seated Liberty half dollars in every year of their production run, while the branch mints in New Orleans, San Francisco, and Carson City produced them for shorter intervals. Mintages were particularly low in the 1880s, during the final decade of production, though the most desired dates include earlier coins such as the 1855-S, 1870-CC, and 1878-S.
The US Mint introduced new designs for the dime, quarter, and half dollar in 1892. These designs are collectively referred to as “Barber coinage” after their designer, the US Mint’s Chief Engraver Charles Barber. These coins remained in production for nearly a quarter-century. Barber was actually still in office as Chief Engraver when the Mint held an open competition for replacement designs in 1915. Adolph Weinman was chosen to design both the new dime and half dollar. His Walking Liberty half dollar was introduced the following year. It is considered one of the most beautiful coin designs in US history. The obverse of the modern American Silver Eagle is taken from Weinman’s half dollar design.
As coin designs honoring famous Americans became more popular, a half dollar honoring Benjamin Franklin was introduced for 1948. This series is relatively short, as it was ended prematurely in 1963 upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy. After a hasty design process, the new Kennedy half dollar was introduced in early 1964, mere weeks after Kennedy’s death.
Rising prices of silver and insatiable demand resulted in the silver content of the half dollar being reduced to 40% silver for 1965. The remaining silver content was eliminated after 1970. Present Kennedy halves are made of the same clad composition as the nickel and quarter. Half dollars are no longer produced for general circulation. 90% silver proofs have been made since 1992.