Just days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, his grieving widow had a decision to make.
The US Mint came to Jackie Kennedy and asked her to decide which coin should feature her husband’s portrait. Out of respect for the first president, she ruled out the quarter, which features the face of George Washington. JFK would appear on the half-dollar.
The US Mint quickly began to replace Benjamin Franklin with the fallen president.
As coin production technology improved over the past half-century, so did the images on coins. They became sharper and more defined. Yet in the fall of 2013, when the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy coin discussions began, an astute San Francisco Mint employee noticed something important: That very enhancement made the portraits on the coin look less lifelike. By the 1990s, strands of Kennedy’s hair became more pronounced, his cheekbones looked sharper, and his jawline more defined.
Now 50 years later, the US Mint is re-releasing the Kennedy half-dollar to look more like the version Jackie Kennedy approved in the weeks after her husband’s death.
In a handful of change, one rarely comes across a Kennedy half-dollar. The US Mint removed the coin from circulation in 2001, though it has continued to produce some each year for annual coin sets and other numismatic products. As the mint planned for the 50th anniversary of the coin, officials saw no better way than to give Kennedy’s image something of a reverse face lift — to return the coin to the Kennedy family’s original wishes.
The mint rolled out a clad (the material composed of many metals most coins are made of today) and gold version of the coin this summer, but on Tuesday it will release a silver coin. Kennedy half-dollars have not been produced in silver since the coin’s first year of production, due to increases in the price of silver that made the cost of creating the coin greater than the half-dollar. The mint will produce the coins based on demand through the end of the year.
Kennedy’s popularity as a historical icon has sparked high demand for the anniversary coin.
“Even people who didn’t know Kennedy admire him,” said Q. David Bowers, the author of several numismatic books. “If they decided to have Tip O’Neil, I don’t think it would have the same effect.”
The US Mint released the gold version of the coin at the American Numismatic Association Fair of Money near Chicago in August and had 500 on hand to sell per day. Bowers said “a mob scene” broke out when coin dealers hired people off the street to wait in line a day early in order to buy the first strike of the coin. Security had to intervene, and the mint ended sales early.
The scene contributed to the mint’s decision to sell the silver version of the coin only online.
The fervor the coin created among coin collectors today reflects the intense pressure the mint faced to quickly produce the Kennedy coin in the months following the assassination.
Heather Sabharwal, a spokeswoman for the mint, said as far as the institution knows, no other coin was made with as much urgency as the Kennedy half-dollar.
“Just a lot of that urgency was because the country was really mourning the loss of the president,” Sabharwal said. “The mint wanted to make an appropriate tribute, especially one according to his widow’s wishes and obviously of interest to so many people.”
As front pages across the nation on Nov. 26, 1963, showed images of Kennedy’s funeral procession, mint director Eva Adams contacted the mint’s prominent sculptor Gilroy Roberts and told him Kennedy’s portrait was under consideration for a silver coin. A day later, he began work on the new half-dollar design.
The mint wanted to ensure production of the Kennedy coin could start in 1964, but in order to replace Benjamin Franklin with Kennedy, Congress needed to act by the end of 1963.
In December, Roberts and representatives from the US Mint and Treasury Department met with Jackie Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to get approval for the coin. Jackie Kennedy was impressed by the coin, but she requested that the late president’s hair part be less pronounced and some accents added. The mint honored her suggestions.
On Dec. 30, 1963, Congress signed the coin bill into law, and the next day the last of the Franklin half-dollars were produced at the Denver and Philadelphia mints.
In early February, the first of the coins were printed, and Adams declared they would be given to Jackie Kennedy and her children, Caroline and John. Lady Bird Johnson, the first lady, brought the very first four coins to the family’s Georgetown house on Feb. 28.
To return the coin’s image to the one the Kennedy family received that day 50 years ago, the mint had to create a new digital model. The mint tracked down a bronze version of Roberts’s sculpture and the original die and used them to make a new digital model.
“We’re back to a fuller cheek, less detail on the strands of hair, and a little bit fuller jaw line,” said Sabharwal. “First lady Kennedy was really integral in the final look of the coin. We wanted to honor her input.”
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly described the US Mint employee who noted the changes in the Kennedy coin. The employee works at the San Francisco Mint.