Money of the 50s and 60s
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.