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Pre-1965 U.S. Silver Coins

The Constitution of the United States says, in Article I Section 10, “No state shall make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts.” That’s one reason that, before the mid-1960s, most of the coins minted in the U.S. were made of 90% silver and 10% copper, with the copper further adding to the durability of the coins.

This came to an abrupt halt with the Coinage Act of 1965, but not before the U.S. Mint had already created a large variety of silver coins that would remain popular with collectors for decades to come.

The use case for silver

The Coinage Act of 1965 decreed that silver no longer be used in the production of dimes and quarters in the U.S. while reducing the amount of silver used in the half-dollar from 90% to 40%. By 1970, the half-dollar would no longer contain silver either.

The government scaled down the use of silver due to increased industrial demand putting pressure on silver prices, making it more expensive to produce silver coins. Industrial demand has grown quite steadily ever since, although often having major intra-year swings, and the Coinage Act is an excellent example of the use case for an investment in silver that holds true today.

Examples of pre-1965 silver coins

There remains a thriving market for pre-1965 silver coins minted in the U.S. Investors often purchase these coins in bulk as “junk silver,” although many individual coins can command a significantly higher price than their silver premium alone. Still, the price per ounce of circulated, pre-1965 junk silver coins is generally lower than new-issue silver coins or the rarer, more collectible silver coins described below. 

The Winged Liberty Head, also known as the Mercury dime, was struck from 1916 to 1945. The coin shows Lady Liberty on the obverse side of the coin wearing her Phygrian hat, bearing a resemblance to the Roman god Mercury. 

Adolph Weinman designed the coin, depicting a fasces and an olive branch on the reverse side to symbolize strength, unity, and peace. Over 2.6 million Mercury dimes were struck, a high mintage that remains popular among numismatists and investors today. Each coin contains 0.0715 ounces of actual silver.

The Roosevelt dime replaced the Mercury dime in 1945 and remains in use today, although it has been struck with a mixture of copper-nickel and copper rather than silver since 1965. John Sinnock’s portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt is shown on the obverse side. There is less of a market for silver Roosevelt dimes than for their Mercury predecessor, although full sets can still command a premium. Note that 1945-1964 Roosevelt dimes contain 0.0715 ounces of actual silver each, just like the Mercury dime.

Washington quarter dollars were struck in 90% silver from 1932 to 1964. These familiar coins feature a portrait of George Washington on the obverse side. Many mintages of these coins are considered valuable, including the 1940-D, 1936-D, and the 1935-D coins among others in the series, and this is because it’s rare to find them in good condition. Regardless of their condition, Washington quarters from 1932-1964 each contain 0.179 oz of silver.

1880 Morgan DollarMorgan silver dollars are another popular example, first minted in 1878-1904 and then again in 1921. These are the most valuable silver coins minted in the U.S. during that time period due to their size and silver content, 0.7734 troy ounces of silver. Lady Liberty is shown on the obverse side with an eagle and olive branch on the reverse. Morgan silver dollars are not generally considered “junk silver” although they sometimes are sold by weight. 

Another interesting silver coin from U.S. history is the Peace dollar, the design of which was chosen in a competition. Sculptor Anthony de Francisci won the competition with his design of the Goddess of Liberty on the obverse side with a bald eagle clutching an olive branch on the reverse. The coin was minted from 1921 to 1928, again in 1934 to 1935, and finally in 2021 on its 100th anniversary. The Denver mint struck 316,000 Peace dollars in 1964, suddenly inflating the number of pre-existing peace dollars. However, in a shocking act of numismatic vandalism, these coins were all melted down before circulating as required by the 1965 Coinage Act. The 2021 mintage was struck in 0.999 fine silver, while earlier mintages were in 90% silver and 10% copper, just like most of the other silver coins described above. 

Other rarer examples include the silver Kennedy half dollar of 1964, minted shortly after President John F. Kennedy’s death in commemoration. The public hoarded these 90% silver coins as mementos of the president, leading to scarcity and higher secondary market valuations on the coins. The following year, the coin would contain less silver (only 40%) due to the Coinage Act, making the 1964 mintage particularly sought-after. The coin shows a left profile of the president by Gilroy Roberts on the obverse side.

Investing in pre-1965 silver coins 

There is a lot of history behind these coins. From the Morgan silver dollar, first struck during the height of Western frontier life in the 19th century, to the rare Kennedy half dollar of 1964, collectors and investors alike take part in an ever-growing market for these rare and beautiful tokens of times gone by.

Keep in mind when buying whether you’re looking for a collector’s item or just silver by weight. Don’t pay a premium for a high-demand coin when you can secure a similar amount of silver less expensively, whether with junk silver coins or silver bullion.