Fifties History          

Money of the 50s and 60s

by David Norris

The Fifties and Sixties can bring back fond memories of sweet soft drinks and candy bars for a dime.

Add a mere two cents, and you could get the latest comic book adventures of Superman or the Fantastic Four.

You could get a McDonald’s meal for one dollar – and get change back! Think, then, for a moment not about the treats but the coins and bills that slipped through our fingers to pay for them.

Some coin designs of the day are still around, but others are gone the way of the 12-cent comic book.

And, what was even more fun for a youngster, all kinds of fun obsolete coins like “buffalo nickels”, Mercury dimes, and even the occasional Indian head penny still had the potential of showing up in our change in the school lunchroom.

The Lincoln penny is our oldest coin design in active use. The front, with Lincoln’s profile, was introduced in 1909 to mark the centennial of his birth.

The original design of the back, showing ears of wheat framing the words “ONE CENT”, was replaced with the modern back showing the Lincoln Memorial in 1959.

The San Francisco Mint closed in 1955, removing the old familiar “S” mint mark. To those of us who lived along the East Coast, the “S” coins were always a little harder to find, and each one we got was a little treat.

The Denver Mint continued making coins marked with a “D” mintmark, and the Philadelphia Mint didn’t use a mintmark.

The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, was a shock unlike anything that hit America before.

The slain president was quickly honored with a new half dollar first issued in 1964, replacing the old ones depicting Benjamin Franklin.

The initials of the designer, Gilroy Roberts, on the Kennedy half sparked a good many “urban legends”.

The scribbled letters GR, placed on the neck of the bust of Kennedy, looked to many people like a communist hammer and sickle symbol.

In 1964, the US government announced that it would stop making silver coins. Silver coins wore down more quickly than today’s nickel-clad coins, but in active circulation kept them polished with a bright, pleasing appearance.

The problem was that the price of silver had risen to the point that one dollar’s worth of silver coins was worth $1.25 or more, so collectors, investors, and ordinary people began hoarding silver change.

This hoarding caused a severe “coin shortage” that was a real headache for merchants for a year or so until the mints could pour out enough coins to take up the slack.

The “D” mintmark was abolished from 1965 to 1967, to stop people from pulling Denver coins out of circulation for their collections.

In 1965, the US introduced “clad” coins, with dimes and quarters being made of a shiny gray copper-nickel layer over a copper core. (Just look at the edge of a dime or a quarter; you’ll see the two different colors of metal.)

US half dollars were made with the ‘clad’ copper inside, but with silver on the outside instead of nickel-alloy. Such part-silver halves, which were actually 40% silver, were minted until 1969.

Canada coins were the same size as their US counterparts, and many slipped into circulation “south of the border” to add a little excitement for the collector. Canadian nickels were especially fun.

For one thing, for years Canadian nickels weren’t round, but 12-sided. And, their five-cent coins were really nickels – made of 100% nickel.

They jumped right onto magnets, which we always seemed to have around when we were kids. US five-cent pieces actually are 75% copper and only 25% nickel – not enough nickel to interest a magnet.

Canada spoiled the fun with their nickels by switching to the US copper-nickel alloy in 1982, but today’s Canadian dimes and quarters are magnetic because they are made mostly of steel.

Today, all US currency is of a type called “Federal Reserve Notes”, which have green seals on the front. In the 50s, two other kinds of notes circulated, the “United States Notes” with red seals, and the “Silver Certificates”, with blue seals.

Silver certificates could be exchanged for silver coins until 1968; they are still spendable, although not for silver!

Two-dollar bills seemed to be more common back in the 50s and 60s than they are today. Many were found with one or more of the corners torn off.

A widespread superstition said it was bad luck to spend a two-dollar bill on a bet without tearing off the corner first.

I have heard that because two dollars was the minimum bet that could be placed on a horse race, a lot of these corners were torn off at the track.

So, keep an eye out and look through your change. You never know when an odd, old coin or bill will appear and take you back to “the good old days”.

Silver certificates, such as this Series of 1928 note, had distinctive blue seals. They could be found circulating well into the 1960s and later.

The old “wheatback” penny, with its still-familiar front; and a close-up of the “S” mintmark of the San Francisco, which closed for several years beginning in 1955.

Minted from 1913 to 1938, plenty of buffalo, or “Indian head”, nickels were around during the 50s and 60s.

The Kennedy half dollar (1964--)

The Franklin half dollar (1948-1963)

1964 was the last year US quarters were made of silver.

Canadian nickels were an interesting find in our lunchroom change, especially during the years they were made with 12 sides, like this one.

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