Collecting Ben Franklin
BY PAUL GREEN
It may have been less of a challenge to carve Mount Rushmore than it was to get Benjamin Franklin on coins of the United States. First, he appeared on the half dollar from 1948-1963. Then, to mark the 300th anniversary of his birth in 2006, the U.S. Mint issued commemorative Franklin silver dollars. This expanded the possibilities for a collection that salutes a sometimes overlooked great American, and one of our nation’s premier founding fathers.
Ben Franklin was involved in important decisions – and in the production of some paper money issues for a number of states – right from the start. It was probably a natural step for him to take, as around the Revolution he had already become something of a national treasure – and a very active one at that! If you consider his paper currency issues as a collecting possibility, a Benjamin Franklin collection can take on real meaning when you obtain some of the pieces he personally helped produce.
Franklin was born in Boston in 1706. He moved to Philadelphia in 1723 – the city he is normally associated with today. Franklin became the proprietor of a printing business, and eventually published The Pennsylvania Gazette from 1730-1748 as well as the famed Poor Richard’s Almanack. His publishing experience later helped him in producing paper currency for Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, which carried the statement “Printed by B. Franklin” and later, “Printed by B. Franklin and D. Hall.”
Even with all that activity, Franklin managed a very busy political career as well. He was a Pennsylvania delegate to the Albany Congress in 1754, and a member of the Second Continental Congress in 1775, all while serving on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence (which he signed). There was more to his involvement as well – by the time the U.S. gained independence, Franklin was something of a senior statesman, and his advice and opinions carried a great deal of weight with those who would become the future leaders of the United States.
Franklin’s important role in history has been honored regularly on various paper money issues. It is not simply a case of Franklin being on the face of the current $100 Federal Reserve Note, and all other small-size $100 notes since their introduction in 1929. Before that, he also appeared in a vignette titled Franklin Drawing Electricity From the Sky, which appeared on several early $10 National Bank Notes. He was also on some $50 United States Notes starting with Series 1874. To this already impressive resume, large-size $100 Federal Reserve Notes starting with Series 1914 can be added.
In addition, there have been bank notes which featured his likeness, including $1, $3, $5, $10 and $20 denominations, and even a $1,000 note for the Bank of the U.S. in Philadelphia. Other banks printing notes that bear his likeness included a number from Georgia, Massachusetts and Alabama.
Simply put, Benjamin Franklin has been depicted on a wide variety of bank notes issued by both the United States and by individual banks. However, things were different when it came to coins. Historically, former presidents had been the only actual people to appear on circulating issues, but that would soon change.
Years had passed and designs had changed, but Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross had been thinking about Benjamin Franklin. In fact, it is believed that Ross had been considering Franklin since Chief Engraver John Sinnock designed a Franklin medal back in 1933. Finally, Ross decided it was time to act. The Secretary of the Treasury went along with the idea, and Sinnock was charged with preparing designs for a Franklin half dollar.
Sinnock had a head start, since he had already designed the 1933 medal. He decided to use the Liberty Bell on the reverse – appropriate, considering Franklin’s association with Philadelphia. Plus, Sinnock had already designed a Liberty Bell for use on the 1926 U.S. Sesquicentennial commemorative half dollar. He was basically finished with his original models, when he passed away.
Sinnock’s passing created problems, as he was not around to defend his designs against criticism from the Commission of Fine Arts. The Commission’s first issue was that the eagle on the reverse was little more than a blob. They observed that the eagle “is so small as to be insignificant and hardly discernible when the model is reduced to the size of a coin.” The Commission was right, but as Sinnock would have explained, Ben Franklin simply detested eagles. He had even tried (unsuccessfully) to have the turkey named as the national bird. Aware of Franklin’s feelings, but required to put an eagle on the reverse, Sinnock compromised by making the eagle so small it would barely be noticed.
The Commission of Fine Arts also had a problem with the crack on the Liberty Bell. Fortunately for this series, the Secretary of the Treasury ordered production to begin despite the reservations of the Commission. The Franklin half dollar was struck from 1948 through 1963, and was discontinued to make way for a design honoring John F. Kennedy following his passing. But the Franklin half does make for a nice collectible, with all dates and most grades available at reasonable prices.
You have a variety of options in collecting Franklin half dollars – by date, by date and mintmark, special collector tributes, by decade and more. As an added bonus, you can also get the 2006 Benjamin Franklin commemorative silver dollars for your collection. For a more advanced collection, you can add notes that have featured Franklin. Better yet, a perfect complement would be one of the original issues from Delaware, Pennsylvania or New Jersey actually printed by Franklin’s business, bearing his name. But no matter how you collect Benjamin Franklin, assembling a collection honoring this unique and very special American makes for an interesting pastime.