WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO? ...

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An Old Favorite, the 50-Cent Coin, Nearly Vanishes From US Purses

Back in the 1940s, millions of Americans walked around with 50-cent pieces jingling in their pockets and purses. Then - suddenly - the popular coin seemed to vanish.

What happened? Nothing, says Michael White of the United States Mint. This year the government will churn out 43 million of the half dollars, and it will increase production to 65 million in 1996. Next year's output will be the second highest in history.

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While 50-cent pieces are still out there, Americans don't see as many of them. One reason is that cash drawers in stores no longer have a place for them. The coin lost its slot in 1965-66, with the advent of electronic registers. Another reason is hoarding: Since half dollars seem scarce, people often keep them.

There's one city - New Orleans - where you can still find a lot of the big coins. Casinos in the Bayou State use half dollars instead of quarters in their slot machines.

While the mint has made no effort to reduce the number of half dollars, it produces far fewer of them than other coins. This year, for example, the output of pennies will reach 13.5 billion. The number of new dimes, nickels, and quarters will range from 1 billion to 2 billion each.

The largest production run for 50-cent coins was 67 million of the Benjamin Franklin half dollars in 1963. Even the most popular 50-cent piece, the Walking Liberty (whose design is now on the Silver Eagle bullion coin) had peak production of only of 53 million in 1943.

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