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Dollars – Trade Dollar, 1873-1885

Though Gobrecht/Liberty Seated dollars were the first silver dollars produced for domestic use since 1804, most did not extensively circulate but were instead sent overseas as bullion. However, the U.S. dollar was devalued for that use because it was lighter in weight than competing Spanish or Mexican dollars. The problem was addressed by Congress in the Coinage Act of 1873, which mandated a new higher weight Trade dollar specifically designed for the China trade. Trade dollars were often counterstamped with chopmarks by Chinese merchants to verify their authenticity. In this country Trade dollars had legal tender status, but when silver prices dropped in the mid 1870s the face value of the coin was higher than the value of the silver: a depositor could take about 90 cents worth of silver bullion to the Mint and receive in return a Trade dollar worth full face value for commerce. Congress reacted to this situation by removing legal tender status from the coin, the first and only time in U.S. history that this was done. Some unscrupulous employers used the “face versus bullion” situation to their advantage, buying Trade dollars at bullion prices but paying them out for wages at face value. This was a ten percent swindle, because when deposited or spent the non-legal-tender coins were valued at the lower bullion price. Unpopular with the public, business strike Trade dollar production was suspended after 1878, though proof coins were made for collectors until 1885.

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

Designed by Chief Engraver William Barber, the obverse of the Trade dollar shows a tiara-wearing Liberty in draped robes seated on a bale in front of a standing sheaf, her feet resting on a grassy plain at the edge of the ocean. The figure faces to the left, signifying a look westward toward the Orient. Her right arm holds aloft an olive branch, the left arm extends downward where the hand holds the end of a ribbon displaying the word LIBERTY. Below the bale is a panel with the words IN GOD WE TRUST. Thirteen six-point stars encircle the top two thirds of the design inside a dentilled rim, and the date is centered at the bottom. An eagle with outstretched but partially folded wings is placed in the center of the reverse, surmounted by a banner that display E PLURIBUS UNUM. The eagle clutches three arrows in the right claw, and an olive branch in the left. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. encircles the top inside a dentilled rim, with TRADE DOLLAR. at the bottom, above which is the curved (but not concentric) text 420 GRAINS, 900 FINE. Coins were minted at Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Carson City; S and CC mintmarks are centered between the bottom two legends.

Trade dollars for circulation were minted from 1873 though 1878 with the San Francisco Mint producing the most each year and Philadelphia none in 1878. Proofs were minted at Philadelphia, and only proofs were produced from 1879 through 1885. The last two proof-year coins were apparently minted in secret, and were unknown to the collecting community until 1907. Prooflike circulation strikes are known as are cameo and deep cameo proofs. Chinese chopmarks add interest and can be a specialty collecting focus, but generally result in slightly lower values compared to unmarked coins. Carson City business strikes list at prices two to three times those from either Philadelphia or San Francisco, with a doubled die 1876-CC reverse at about twice the price of the normal 1876-CC. Proofs generally track higher than comparable business strikes up to near-Gem, a situation that reverses at Gem and higher. Proofs from 1884 and 1885 are extremely rare and expensive.


Designer: William Barber
Circulation Mintage: high 9,519,000 (1877-S), low 97,000 (1878-CC; none for 1878 Philadelphia and none from 1879 through 1885)
Proof Mintage: high 1,987 (1880), low 5 (1885; none from the Carson City or San Francisco Mints)
Denomintion: $1.00
Diameter: ±38.1 mm, reeded edge
Metal content: 90% silver, 10% copper
Weight: ±27.22 grams
Varieties: Many known including minor obverse and reverse design changes, die variations, overpunches, and die doubling. Best known are probably the 1875 S over CC overpunch and the 1876-CC die doubling.

Additional Resources :

CoinFacts: www.coinfacts.com
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
A Buyer’s Guide to Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States. Q. David Bowers (author), John Dannreuther (editor). Zyrus Press.
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.

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