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The History Of 90% Silver Coins

If you’re in the market for United States coin to add to your collection or your Precious Metals hoard, you may wish to consider growing with 90% Silver coins, sometimes called “junk silver”. These coins were produced by the United States Mint for most of our nation’s history, but they aren’t anymore. There is great nostalgic value as well as melt value to be had with a bag of junk Silver.

Contemporary collectors recognize the vital role 90% Silver coins played, and are still playing, in the realm of U.S. currency. Let’s examine which coins exactly count as junk Silver and why should you add some to your Precious Metals collection.

History Of 90% U.S. Silver Coins

Prior to 1965, most Silver-colored coins minted in the United States actually were Silver. They consisted of 90% Silver and 10% Copper, an alloy that made the coins beautifully lustrous but gave them the necessary durability to stand up to circulation. Silver was an ideal option for many reasons, not the least of which was that it was affordable enough to keep the cost of minting the coins well below their face value.

Pennies and nickels in the United States had never been produced in 90% Silver, although nickels were produced in 35% Silver out of necessity for a short while during World War II. Every other U.S. coin denomination, however, was struck on 90% Silver at some point. This includes dimes, quarters, half dollars, and dollars in many various designs.

1965 stands out as a watershed year for the United States Mint, because that is the year that Public Law 88-36 was adopted. The law cut the amount of Silver in coins by more than half, from 90% to 40%. Silver coinage took another major hit in 1970, when most circulating coins stopped containing any Silver whatsoever. Why did that change when Silver had been deemed ideal for so long? The rising cost of Precious Metals made producing Silver coins impractical. Most 90% Silver coins do have value, but not because of their legal tender status and denomination, and not because they have accrued numismatic value. Rather, it’s because of their Silver content. This is why you often hear the term “junk silver” associated with 90% Silver coins—the term refers to coins with a value primarily derived from their melt value.

Popular U.S. 90% Silver Coins

The “junk Silver” label does not necessarily mean that these coins only are fit for smelting. Some coins have fascinating historic value and could reasonably make their way into the collections of coin enthusiasts and history buffs. 

Kennedy Half Dollar

The U.S. began minting these 12.5-gram 50¢ pieces in 1964, as soon as possible after the tragic assassination of President Kennedy. The only year that they contained 90% Silver was 1964 This gives them extra value for collectors. Depending on the condition of the coins and the mintmark they bear, the value of these coins can vary widely. Please note that while Kennedy Half Dollars still are minted today, they contain literally no Silver.

Washington Quarter

Each 90% Silver Washington Quarter contains 5.625 grams of Silver. Putting aside the historic value of the coins and considering only the value of the Silver, each coin is worth just a few dollars. However, uncirculated Washington Quarters from the early years of its production run bearing a Denver or San Francisco mint mark can potentially have a much higher value.

Walking Liberty Half Dollar

Numismatists revere Walking Liberty Half Dollars for their beautiful and iconic design. They weigh as much as Kennedy Half Dollars, so the Silver value in these coins is identical. However, Walking Liberty coins, which were struck from 1916 to 1947, are much more than “junk Silver” to history enthusiasts and numismatists, so ones in good condition are worth much more than their Silver content.

Franklin Half Dollar

Franklin Half Dollar coins replaced Walking Liberty Half Dollars and were the circulating half-dollar until the arrival of Kennedy Half Dollars. These 90% Silver coins weigh 12.5 grams each. The historical importance of Franklin Half Dollars is derived from their position as the first circulated coins in U.S. history that featured an American who had not served as President. As with all coins, the value varies depending on condition and age.

Mercury Dime

Around the time that the U.S. Mint produced Walking Liberty Half Dollars, it also was striking the Mercury Dime. These petite coins weigh just 2.5 grams and contain approximately 0.07 ounces of Silver per coin. Although it would take an immense amount of these 10¢ pieces to add up to a significant amount of Silver value, some Mercury Dimes are prized by collectors. Uncirculated dimes produced Denver are among the most coveted Mercury coins.

Barber Dime

Barber Dimes, which preceded Mercury Dimes, are composed of 90% Silver and 10% copper and they weigh 2.5 grams each. Their numismatic value, however, far outstrips the value of their Silver content. The U.S. struck these dimes from 1892 until the introduction of the Mercury Dime. The scarcest Barber Dimes are those few minted in San Francisco in 1894. Only 24 were made, 9 of which have survived to present day. An 1894-S can go for over a million dollars at auction. However, there are lots of other Barber Dimes to go around and you could build a great collection of them.

Barber Quarter

Barber Quarters, minted 1892-1916, do not begin to approach the realm of the 1894-S Barber Dime in terms of collectability, but some do hold considerable numismatic value. These 90% Silver pieces weigh 6.25 grams each, making their Silver melt value on par with that of Washington Quarters.

However, Barber Quarters’ antiquity gives them an edge when it comes to value. Some of the oldest Barber Quarters, particularly those minted in San Francisco, can command large premiums.

Peace Dollar Coins

Peace Dollars weigh 26.73 grams each and they contain 24.057 grams of actual Silver. The rarity of Peace Dollars enhances their value. The U.S. minted them for just 10 years, from 1921 to1928 and again in 1934 and 1935. Peace Dollars struck in 1921, 1928, 1934, and 1935 are especially enticing to collectors.

Morgan Dollar

Like Peace Dollars, Morgan Dollars boast an actual Silver weight of 24.057 grams. The U.S. Mint struck Morgan Dollars from 1878 to 1904 and in then again 1921. As with any coins, some Morgan Dollars are worth more than others. Collectors especially prize those minted in Carson City in 1881 and 1885. Also, while 1878 Morgan Dollars are not exceedingly rare, they do offer a point of interest in that some feature an eagle on their reverse that has eight tail feathers. Real eagles have seven tail feathers, and other coins have them depicted properly.

Expand Your Portfolio with 90% Silver Coins

“Junk Silver” is not junk! Some 90% Silver coins may fall under that heading but actually have a value far beyond that of their Silver content. As you expand your Precious Metals collection, you will also expand your knowledge about junk Silver and how it can enrich your investments.

United States 90% Silver coins can easily be purchased in either bags or rolls based on their face value and are a very satisfying purchase for a young or beginning collector.

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