Trade Dollars 1873-1885 Coin Guide
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Trade Dollar 1875
Federal officials faced a dilemma in the years after the Civil War. The
Comstock Lode and other Western mines were producing large quantities of
silver, but the government could use only limited amounts of it in
coinage. This seems puzzling in retrospect, for silver coins were few and
far between in circulation (a lingering legacy of wartime hoarding), and
Americans presumably would have welcomed major infusions of silver coins.
But Mint officials feared that new silver coins would be subject to
hoarding as well, since the marketplace was awash with paper money,
including fractional currency born of wartime need. People would have been
only too happy to exchange these notes, which brought less than full face
value, for precious-metal coinage.
For a time, the miners found outlets for their silver, often in coinage
form, in foreign markets. Canada, Latin America and Europe all absorbed
significant quantities during the 1860s. But then, for various reasons
these markets became glutted. In Europe, for example, Prussian Chancellor
Otto von Bismarck established a gold standard for Germany after unifying
the country in 1871 and promptly dumped huge amounts of silver on the
For the miners and their powerful allies in Washington these
developments were doubly disturbing: Not only was it hard to sell their
silver, but the market price was steadily declining. Initially, coinage
did offer one escape valve: Under a long- standing law, silver could be
deposited with the Mint for conversion into silver coins, for which it
could then be exchanged. Having no other ready outlet, miners took
advantage of this one. Invariably, they chose silver dollars, the one
denomination that hadn't been changed when silver coins were reduced in
weight (and precious-metal content) in 1853. As a direct result, silver
dollar mintages soared above one million in both 1871 and 1872.
But with the Coinage Act of 1873, Congress closed this loophole by
suspending further production of silver dollars. And that's where the
trade dollar came in: Flexing their muscle, the mining interests won
approval for this new silver coin-one that would, in theory at least, not
only provide an outlet for the metal, but also open a whole new market for
it in an area that was already receiving Congressional attention.
The market in question was Asia, particularly China. Some U.S. silver
had found its way to that region previously, but now a full-fledged
offensive was planned. The Chinese had shown a decided preference for
silver coins, and up to then the bulk of American trade with China had
been carried out with Spanish and Mexican dollars. The trade dollar's
architects set out to supplant those rivals by giving the new coin a
higher silver content. They even had it inscribed on the coin: "420
GRAINS, 900 FINE."
At first glance, the trade dollar looks much like a regular silver
dollar. It's the same diameter and about the same weight as its
predecessor, the Seated Liberty dollar, and its portraiture is similar: a
seated female figure representing Liberty on the obverse and a
naturalistic eagle on the reverse-designs prepared by Mint Chief Engraver
In contrast to the new trade dollar, the regular U.S. silver dollar
weighed just 412.5 grains, and the Mexican dollar weighed only 416. But
the architects had miscalculated; though it weighed slightly less, the
Mexican coin had a higher fineness and therefore contained slightly more
pure silver. The astute Chinese recognized this and, in many provinces,
gave the U.S. coin short shrift, favoring the Mexican coin.
That's not to say the trade dollar wasn't used. On the contrary, over
27 million went overseas and found their way into Asian commerce, many
later being sent on to India in trade for opium. Numerous pieces show chop
marks-distinctive Chinese symbols-placed on them by merchants to attest to
their authenticity. But usage of the coins never approached Americans'
The trade dollar's biggest problems occurred not in China but at home.
In a last-minute deal, Congress had made the coin a legal tender for
domestic payments up to five dollars. In 1876, millions were dumped into
circulation in the United States when silver prices plummeted, making them
worth substantially more as money than as metal.
Congress quickly revoked their legal-tender status (the only time this
has been done with any U.S. coin), but the seeds of serious trouble had
been sown. In the late 1870s, employers bought up huge numbers of the
coins at slightly more than bullion value (80 to 83 cents apiece) and then
put them in pay envelopes at face value. Merchants and banks accepted them
only at bullion value or rejected them altogether, so the workers
effectively lost one-sixth to one-fifth of their pay at a time when that
pay often amounted to less than $10 a week.
Spurned abroad and despised by many at home, the trade dollar soon
faded into oblivion. After 1878, production was suspended except for
proofs-and even those dwindled to just ten in 1884 and five in 1885.
Like many other "fantasy" coins before them, the 1884 and
1885 pieces were clandestinely struck for Mint crony William Idler and
were unknown to the numismatic community until six pieces from Idler's
estate were sold by dealer John Haseltine in 1908. Notwithstanding their
questionable origin, these two dates are viewed as great rarities today.
In all, fewer than 36 million trade dollars were struck during the
coin's 13-year lifespan, including about 11,000 proofs. Production took
place at Philadelphia, Carson City and San Francisco. The rarest business
strike is the 1878-CC with a mintage of 97,000, many of which appear to
have been melted. All high-grade business strikes of the trade dollar are
rare to non-existent, leaving proofs to fill most of the demand from type
The extraordinary beauty of originally-toned proofs entices many
collectors to attempt complete proof runs (excluding the virtually
unavailable 1884 and 1885, of course). Indeed, any trade dollar is highly
prized and sought in pristine condition. Points to check for wear include
Liberty's ear, left knee and breast and the eagle's head and left wing.
Designer: William Barber
Weight: 27.22 grams
Net weight: 0.7874 oz pure silver
Composition: 0 .900 silver, 0.100 copper
Diameter: 38.1 mm
Minted at: Philadelphia, Carson City, San Francisco
Years Minted: 1873 to 1885
Mint mark: On reverse below eagle and above the 'D' in the
Notes: Key date 1878CC due to numerous coins being melted and
low mintage. Proofs are rare too. Many trade dollars have been
counterstamped with Chinese 'chop marks'. These marks typically devalue
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Bowers, Q. David, Silver Dollars &
Trade Dollars of the United States, A Complete Encyclopedia, Bowers and
Merena, Wolfeboro, NH, 1993. Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's Complete
Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, F.C.I. Press/Doubleday, New York,
1988. Willem, John M., The United States Trade Dollar, Whitman Publishing
Co., Racine, WI, 1965. Yeoman, R.S., A Guide Book of United States Coins,
48th Edition, Western Publishing Co., Racine, WI, 1994.
Coin Information Provided Courtesy NGC.