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The Straight Dope

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What has happened to 50-cent pieces? I suppose the collectors are hoarding all the silver ones, but what has happened to the cheap imitations? Nobody talks about this. Another cover-up conspiracy? --Bill Mitchell, Berkeley, California

Time to appoint another special prosecutor. Not that she'd get very far--trying to establish why coins don't circulate involves a search for first causes on a par with proofs of the existence of God. The immediate reason you don't see halvies is that the U.S. mint doesn't make many--30 million in 1993, compared to 1.3 billion quarters. The mint says it doesn't make many because of lack of consumer demand--in fact it's thought about eliminating the denomination altogether. Some coin experts say consumers don't demand half- dollars because vending machines, pay phones, etc won't accept them. A vending industry spokesman says it's actually the other way around: the machines don't accept them because people don't use them. A spokesman for the Coin Coalition, a trade group, says it's not the public that won't use halvies but retailers, who dispense most change. We could go on like this all day.

Time for Cecil to cut through the crap. In my opinion the main reason you don't see half-dollars is that virtually all of those minted from 1964 on were snatched from circulation by hoarders, and people simply learned to do without.

It all started with the introduction of the Kennedy half-dollar in 1964. Though the earlier Franklin half-dollar had never been wildly popular, production had risen from 20 million in 1959 to 90 million in 1963, presumably due to rising demand. But demand for Franklin halves was nothing compared to that for Kennedy halves. That proved to be the half-dollar's undoing.

Virtually every Kennedy half minted between 1964 and 1970--nearly 1.3 billion coins--disappeared from circulation as soon as it was issued. Kennedy admirers took many, of course, but silver speculators got most of the rest. The price of silver was rising at the time, and though quarters and dimes were promptly switched to cupronickel-clad copper, the silver content of halves was kept relatively high, apparently because of lobbying by the silver industry. Whatever the reason, the half-dollar ceased to play any part in daily commerce.

The mint surrendered to reality in 1971 and began making half-dollars out of cupronickel-clad copper. But though production continued to be high--280 million halves were minted in 1974--it was still rare to see a half-dollar in everyday circulation, perhaps because by then they seemed such a novelty that anyone who received one immediately stashed it away as a souvenir.

In 1975 the first of nearly 530 million bicentennial half-dollars were issued. These vanished like the billions of other halves before them, no doubt because the finite (if large) number of coins produced led them to be regarded as collector's items. Issuance of standard Kennedy halves resumed in 1977 in more modest quantities, and today they can usually be obtained at banks, although it may take some asking around. But there is little demand for them, the economy having adapted to their nonavailability.

Too bad. What with inflation, a widely available (and accepted) high-value coin would eliminate the need to drag a fistful of quarters along to the laundromat, or to the newspaper box on Sundays. The vending companies would also love a popular high-value coin, since bill-accepting technology is much more expensive and failure-prone than coin mechanisms. The main job of the Coin Coalition, in fact, is lobbying for a dollar coin to replace the failed Susan B. Anthony coin--doomed, depending on whom you talk to, either by its similarity in size to a quarter or by the failure of the government to withdraw dollar bills upon introducing it. (Withdrawal of Canadian dollar bills was the main thing that put the Canadian dollar coin over.) But after the Susie B. fiasco, the U.S. mint's Vietnam, it could be years before we see any more numismatic experiments, useful or not.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Slug Signorino.

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