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Junk Silver Coins
Have you ever heard someone talk about “junk silver” or “90%” and wondered what they meant? From the late 1830s to 1964, all United States dimes, quarters, and half dollars minted for circulation were made from 90% pure silver. While the coins minted in the 1800s are usually worth more than their melt value to coin collectors, the majority of the later coins are only held and traded for their U.S. Government-guaranteed silver content.
Other Types of Junk Silver Coins
When people talk about “junk silver,” they're almost always talking about old 90% pure circulating coins. But, there are a couple more types of related coins that you might want to know about.
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.
35% Silver “War Nickels”
As the United States geared up for total war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a curious problem soon appeared. 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. Oh, and it 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 “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.
This leads us to our next question...
Is The Government Taking Junk Silver Out of Circulation?
Junk silver is much harder to find nowadays. Is this simply a result of people hoarding any pre-1965 coins they find, or is the government actively pulling the 90% silver coins out of circulation? We were unable to find a definitive answer to this, so we went straight to the source: The United States Mint. Public Affairs officer Michael White of the U.S. Mint was kind enough to answer our questions.
When asked “Are there measures in place to remove pre-1965 silver coinage from circulation when it returns into possession of the federal government other than coins being too worn for use in general circulation ?” he replied “No.”
To be certain, we also asked him “Is it possible for a pre-1965 silver coin to be deposited at a Federal Reserve Bank and then return to circulation?” and he said “Yes.”
So, there you have it, direct from the U.S. Mint. It is still possible to find junk silver “in the wild,” if you get to it before other collectors!
How To Identify Junk Silver Coins
You can always look at the mint date on your coins to see if any are 1964 or older, but there's an easier way to check your change for silver: Every time someone gives you change, do this one easy thing before putting the coins in your pocket or purse. Hold them in a stack, and look at the edges. Anything with a brown color along the edge is a modern copper-clad coin. BUT, if it looks silver all the way on the edge, check the date: you may have struck silver!
Why Is Junk Silver Popular?
Pre-1965 silver was initially hoarded in 1964, when the government announced that all new coins would be copper-clad. The next big run on junk silver was during the 1979-1980 global silver shortage caused by the Hunt Brothers' attempt to corner the silver market. It is estimated that tons of silver coins were melted down as the spot price jumped from $9.57 in August 1979 to $46.80 in January 1980.
The boom in the “prepper” subculture after the global financial crisis of 2008 caused people to lose their trust of banks and central governments, drove the premiums on junk silver to where they remain today. Normal, everyday people trust these old US coins over silver bars or bullion coins, because they are government-minted, familiar, and rarely counterfeited. As U.S. legal tender, 90% silver coins will always be worth at least their face value. There is also no sales tax in many jurisdictions on U.S. legal tender coins.
Another reason junk silver coins are popular, is that their silver content is proportional to their face value. That leads us to our next subject:
How Is Junk Silver Bought and Sold?
90% silver U.S. circulated coins are mostly sold in multiples of $1 face value. This is mainly because it is easy to remember that $1 in junk silver equals .715 troy oz of silver content. Note that this industry standard is less than the .723 troy oz original weight when minted, to account for wear.
Remember how we said that these old coins had a silver content proportional to their face value? That's what makes trading them in $1 increments so easy. Ten dimes, or four quarters, or five dimes and two quarters, or one half dollar and two quarters, any way you slice it, $1 in face value of junk silver is .715 ozt of silver.
If you have a bunch of old silver coins, use our handy Junk Silver Calculator at the top of this page to see how much they are worth, at the present spot price. Gainesville Coins sells 90% silver U.S. coins in lots from $1 to $1000 face value, and sorts through the tons of coins we buy every year to make sure you don't get any foreign coins or modern clad.