The Franklin Half Dollar: Coin Collecting’s Philadelphia Story
BY ED REITER
“The Philadelphia Story” was one of Hollywood’s most memorable movies of the 1940s. Coming out at the start of the decade, in 1940, it earned an Academy Award for Jimmy Stewart (his only one) and Oscar nominations for Katharine Hepburn and the movie itself.
The United States Mint produced a “Philadelphia Story” of its own near the end of the decade, in 1948, when it introduced a new half dollar showcasing two symbols of freedom long associated with that city – Benjamin Franklin and the Liberty Bell.
In some ways, the Franklin half dollar was a highly successful production. Its design was simple, straightforward and appealing – and the coin saw wide circulation, playing a significant role in the nation’s commerce. But an unkind fate befell it, cutting short its run after only 16 years and dooming it to premature removal from circulation.
The concept of depicting Ben Franklin on a coin is generally credited to Nellie Tayloe Ross, who served as Mint director under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and also, for a time, under his successor, Harry Truman. Ross, it is said, envisioned a Franklin coin soon after the release of the Washington quarter in 1932. But the right situation didn’t arise for a decade-and-a-half.
The quarter was only the second regular-issue U.S. coin to portray a real-life person, joining the Lincoln cent, which dates back to 1909. The two coins started a trend, which continued with the Jefferson nickel in 1938 and the Roosevelt dime in 1946. By 1947, the Walking Liberty half dollar was due for replacement, having been around since 1916, and Ross decided to press for a Franklin coin. All four previous “portrait” coins had honored presidents, but she felt Franklin belonged in the exclusive club as well.
Benjamin Franklin, of course, was one of the most illustrious of all the Founding Fathers. He gained fame as a publisher, statesman, scientist and inventor and helped draft both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Though born in Boston, in 1706, he moved to Philadelphia as a young man and spent most of his long life there, becoming synonymous with the city. It was there that he published Poor Richard’s Almanack, conducted his famous experiment on lightning and electricity, invented bifocals and the Franklin stove and played a pivotal role in the drive for independence. He died in 1790 at the age of 84 – a remarkably advanced age for that day.
The Liberty Bell arrived in Philadelphia several decades after Franklin. The bell was commissioned in 1751 by the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly and was meant to hang in the new State House, later renamed Independence Hall. It was cast in London by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and delivered in August 1752, but it suffered a crack during tests and had to be recast twice before taking its place in the steeple in June 1753.
The bell was reportedly rung on July 4, 1776 to announce the signing of the Declaration of Independence, then hidden in a church in Allentown, Pa., the following year, when British troops entered Philadelphia. In 1835, it suffered a major crack while tolling during the funeral of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, and in 1846 it cracked beyond repair while being rung on Washington’s Birthday. Though silent, it has remained an eloquent national icon ever since.
John Sinnock, the Mint’s chief sculptor-engraver, prepared the basic designs for the Franklin half dollar shortly before his death in 1947. His assistant and successor, Gilroy Roberts, applied the finishing touches – including the addition of a diminutive eagle on the reverse to satisfy a statutory requirement.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963 led to calls for a JFK coin, and the half dollar was chosen, ringing down the curtain on Franklin halves. Soon after, the introduction of copper-nickel coinage led to the systematic hoarding of U.S. silver coins, including Franklins.
For this “Philadelphia Story,” it was “The End.”