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Many first-time coin collectors wonder, What is “junk silver”? Although its name may arouse images of scrap metal and sterling flatware, junk silver is the colloquial term for well-worn 90% silver coins.
In short, all of the U.S. coin denominations 10 cents and above were made from 90% pure silver prior to 1965. After 1964, an Act of Congress replaced the silver coinage with copper-nickel clad coins for the denominations of the dime, the quarter, half dollar, and even subsequent dollar coins. These coins contained no silver; the Kennedy half dollar, however, was still minted with a 40% silver composition between 1965 and 1970. The same composition was used for the Eisenhower dollar coins that followed from 1971 to 1976.
Though there are silver coins from all over the world, these coins can vary somewhat significantly in their purity levels. for instance, many french coins of the 20th century are .835 fine silver, while many canadian and mexican silver coins are .800 fine or .725 fine. there are swiss and austrian coins that are 90%, 80%, and even 64% pure. in order to simplify the math, most coin collectors and precious metal traders prefer to stick with u.s. coins because of their consistent fineness of .900.
The most commonly seen 90% junk silver coins include, but are not limited to, the following Pre-1965 coin denominations:
In general, coins that predate the 20th century do not fall under the umbrella of junk silver simply because, even in terrible states of wear, these coins are still worth more to collectors than their melt value. Coins in this category include Barber variety silver coins, as well as Seated Liberty varieties.
When people talk about “junk silver,” they're almost always talking about old 90% pure circulating coins. Yet, there are a couple more types of related coins that you might want to familiarize yourself with.
The Kennedy half dollar was introduced in 1964, a year after the President was assassinated, and the last year the U.S. Mint made 90% silver coins for circulation. While the rest of the coins moved to a copper-nickel alloy cladding over a copper core in 1965, public sentiment was against allowing JFK's memory to be so disrespected. The Mint came up with a compromise: Instead of a copper core, the Kennedy half dollars would have a core made of 20.9% silver and 79.1% copper, and have cladding made for 80% silver, 20% alloy. This gave the coin an overall silver content of 40%. This system ran for five years, from 1965 to 1970, when the Kennedy was switched to a copper-clad format matching the quarters and dimes.
American coinage changed as the United States geared up for conflict in the Pacific Theater during World War II. There was a shortage of nickel, which was vital in making hardened steel and stainless steel for the war effort.
The U.S. Mint was tasked with coming up with a replacement alloy for the Jefferson nickel that did not use nickel, but kept the same size and weight of the original coin. It also had to be made so that vending machines would not reject them as slugs. The experts at the Mint replaced the old alloy of 75% copper and 25% nickel with an alloy of 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese. These silver “war nickels” began production in october 1942, and were minted through 1945. the mint mark was removed from the front of the coin, and replaced with a larger mint mark on the back, above the dome of jefferson's home of monticello. the original idea was to take these silver nickels out of circulation after the war, but it was determined it would cost too much to sort through the many millions of circulating nickels.