Searching for Silver Coins: When Did the Mint Stop Making Them?

by Michael on May 6, 2013 · 2 comments

Photo of Nickels, Dimes, and Quarters

Yesterday afternoon, my son and I rolled a ton of coins. And while we did so, we checked to see if any were made of silver.

Silver? Yes, silver. In case you weren’t aware, the US Mint used to use a good bit of silver when making plain old coins.

In fact, certain vintages of nickels, dimes, quarters, half dollars, and even dollar coins were up to 90% silver. As such, the melt value of these coins is significantly higher than their face value.

While we weren’t looking to get rich, it gave us something interesting to do on a rainy afternoon. So what, exactly, were we looking for? Read on for details… Or just skip to the end for some rules of thumb as well as to learn what we found.

Silver dollars

While the only dollar coins that we had in our stash were Susan B. Anthony dollars, Sacagawea dollars, and Presidential dollar coins. But for the sake of completeness, I thought I’d start by talking about silver dollars…

From 1878-1921, the Mint produced Morgan dollars with Lady Liberty on the obverse (head) and an eagle holding arrows and an olive branch on the reverse (tail) of the coin. These Morgan dollars were 90% silver and 10% with a total weight of 26.73 grams. As of this writing, their current melt value* is ca. $18.64/each.

From 1921-1935, the Mint produced Peace dollars with Lady Liberty on the obverse and a perched eagle on the reverse. Like Morgan dollars, these coins were 90% silver and 10% copper. With a total weight of 26.73 grams, Peace dollars have a current melt value of $18.63/each.

The Peace dollar was the last silver dollar minted for circulation. However, from 1971-1974 and in 1976, the Mint did produce collectible silver versions of the Eisenhower dollar coins that were 40% silver and 60% copper. But these should not be confused with the Eisenhower dollars that were actually circulated from 1971-1978. The latter were 91.67% copper and 8.33% nickel.

The easiest way to distinguish between the types of Eisenhower dollar — aside from the fact that only the non-silver versions were circulated — is by weight. The truly silver (40/60) Eisenhower dollars weigh in at 24.59 grams vs. 22.68 for the version made of copper and nickel.

For the record, the silver Eisenhower dollars have a current melt value of $7.67/each. The copper/nickel Eisenhower dollars only have an inherent value of $0.18/each — a good bit less than their face value.

*Note: For the purposes of the calculations in this post, I used the current spot prices of $23.95/ounce for silver and $3.29/ounce for copper. Obviously, these are rather volatile numbers that will change over time.

Silver half dollars

From 1892-1915, the Mint produced Barber half dollars. These were made of 90% silver and 10% copper and, with a total weight of 12.5 grams, the current melt value of a Barber half dollar is $8.67/each.

From 1916-1947, the Mint produced Walking Liberty half dollars. Like the Barber half dollars, these were 90% silver and 10% copper and weighed in at 12.5 grams. As such, the melt value is the same — $8.67/each.

From 1948-1963, the Mint produced Franklin half dollars. Once again, these were 90% silver and 10% copper. Weighing in at 12.5 grams, the current melt value of a Franklin half dollar is $8.67/each.

In 1964, the Mint produced the last of their 90/10 half dollar coins. These were Kennedy half dollars, once again weighing in at 12.5 grams and having a current melt value of $8.67/each.

From 1965-1970, the Mint transitioned to producing Kennedy half dollars that were 40% silver and 60% copper. These weighed in at 11.5 grams and have a current melt value of $3.59/each.

From 1971 onward, there was no silver used in the production of half dollars for circulation. There have, however, been some special, collectible versions produced that contained silver.

Silver quarters

From 1916-1930, the Mint produced Standing Liberty quarters that were 90% silver and 10% copper. Weighing in at 6.25 grams, Standing Liberty quarters have a current melt value of $4.34/each.

From 1932-1964, the Mint produced Washington silver quarters. These look pretty much the same as current Washington quarters, with George Washington on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse. They were 90% silver and 10% copper with a total weight of 6.25 grams for a current melt value of $4.34/each.

From 1965 onward, there was no silver used in the production of quarters for circulation, though collectible pieces have been produced.

Silver dimes

From 1892-1916, the Mint produced Barber dimes that were 90% silver and 10% copper. Weighing in at 2.5 grams, they have a current melt value of $1.74/each.

From 1916-1945, the Mint produced Mercury dimes, named for the resemblance of the winged liberty head on the obverse to the Roman god Mercury. Like the Barber dimes, these were 90% silver and 10% copper and weighed 2.5 grams, giving them a current melt value of $1.74/each.

From 1946-1964, the Mint transitioned to producing Roosevelt dimes that were 90% silver and 10% copper. Once again, these weighed in at 2.5 grams giving them a current melt value of $1.74/each.

From 1965 onward, there was no silver used in the production of dimes destined for circulation, though collectible pieces containing silver have been produced.

Silver nickels

And finally, nickels… As it turns out, the only silver nickels that were ever produced were Jefferson nickels made during World War II, from 1942-1945. This transition was due to the high value of nickel for armor plating.

So-called “war nickels” are 35% silver, 56% copper, and 9% manganese. With a total weight of 5 grams, these nickels have a current melt value of $1.37/each.

That being said…

The value of the metals in a plain old nickel (75% copper, 25% nickel) surpassed the face value of $0.05/each in the recent past, causing some individuals to begin hoarding them. As of this writing, the value has dipped back below $0.05/each, but that hasn’t stopped people from stockpiling them.

Rules of thumb

With all of that said, we can boil it down to some pretty simple rules:

  • The last circulated silver dollars were produced in 1935. Yes, there are some more recent collectible pieces that contain silver but, for the most part, anything from 1936 or later is non-silver.
  • For dimes, quarters, and half dollars, the magic number is 1964. In that year and earlier, these coins were 90% silver.
  • Half dollars minted from 1965-1970 are nearly half as good as those from 1964 and earlier, with 40% silver content.
  • For nickels, the only years of interest are 1942-1945 — though modern nickels are still worth more than face value.

So… Is it worth the trouble to sort coins in search of silver?

Sorting our coins

For background, I tend to throw my spare change into a bowl that eventually makes it’s way into a big Ziploc bag that I keep in our closet. We use these for making change when we do allowance, but they accumulate faster than we use them.

Because of this, I sit down with the kids every once in awhile to sort and roll the coins for deposit in the bank. This time around, I thought it would be interesting to check the dates on the coins and see if we had anything of value.

Note that I’m talking here just about silver content. I’m no coin expert, nor do I care to become one, so I don’t really know anything about their numismatic value.

We went through the following:

  • 392 x quarters ($98.00)
  • 124 x dimes ($12.40)
  • 126 x nickels ($6.30)

We also had two half dollars (both non-silver), but the sample size there was way too small to learn anything meaningful.

What did we find? Nothing. Not a single silver coin. That’s fine with me because it was a fun exercise and, like I said above, it gave us something to do (and talk about) on a rainy afternoon.

This result isn’t terribly surprising given that people have been pulling silver coins out of circulation for decades. In fact, you could see the effects of this activity by looking at the dates of the different types of coins.

While we didn’t see a single dime or quarter from before 1965, we saw quite a few nickels from the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. None between 1942-1945, but plenty of others from prior to 1965.

Why was it easier to find older nickels? Because nickels of that vintage (with the exception of 1942-1945) aren’t made of silver. Thus, there’s little incentive to remove them from circulation.

The upshot from this little experiment is that there’s not a lot of money to be made searching for silver in bulk coins. Yes, people do it, buying coins at the bank, pulling out any silver that they find, and dumping the rest at another branch.

Perhaps our results would have been different if we had large numbers of half dollars. But, based on our admittedly limited experience, I just can’t see this being worth the time required. Have you had any luck finding silver in circulating coins?

Of course, that hasn’t stopped someone from writing a book about it.


1 a May 7, 2013 at 1:28 pm

I just check my change rather than actively searching for old coins (“search rolls”). I haven’t found a silver coin in circulation in years.

I attribute still finding older nickels (40s and 50s) in circulation due to the fact that the Jefferson Nickels haven’t changed appearance (except mint mark placement, the War Nickels and some very recent changes). I don’t think people notice them.

Wheat cents (pre-1959), on the other hand, have largely been pulled out of circulation. Though, I was given an Indian head in change a couple years ago. I couldn’t believe it.

2 Jose May 7, 2013 at 6:43 pm

I’ve done the same thing and have yet to find a pre-1964 silver coin. You have to buy them, quite often above spot. I still like the concept of a dime being able to buy a loaf of bread with it’s melt value though :)

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