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Trade Dollar, 1873-1885 | CoinWeek

1877-S Trade Dollar. Image: Stack's Bowers / CoinWeek.
1877-S Trade Dollar. Image: Stack’s Bowers / CoinWeek.

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek Notes …..
 

The Trade Dollar was a silver trade coin the United States Mint struck to facilitate foreign trade. Although the Gobrecht Dollars (1836-1839) and the Liberty Seated Dollars (1840-1873) were produced for domestic use, most did not circulate exclusively in the United States but instead were sent overseas and traded for their bullion value. Unfortunately for U.S. merchants, the American silver dollar coin was lighter than competing coinage from Mexico and proved an unpopular choice.

As Mexican coins were favored by Chinese and Japanese merchants, U.S. banking institutions made a business in supplying American businesses with Mexican coins to facilitate the export trade. However, this placed American businesses at a disadvantage.

To remedy the issue, international tradesmen and silver producers wanted an export-quality coin suitable for Asian trade. Louis Garnett, Treasurer and Assayer of the San Francisco Mint, saw the problem first-hand on this side of the Pacific and made official recommendations for such a coin. Congress provided a potential answer in a provision of the Coinage Act of 1873.

The Trade Dollar differed from the American silver dollar in a few ways: the coin weighed 27.22 grams, which was 0.49 grams more than the silver dollar; it had no fixed value as compared with gold; and it was not intended to serve as a monetary standard or unit of account for domestic purposes. We say “intended” because the legal tender status of the series was murky at the outset. Recognizing the vagueness of the issue, revoked its limited legal tender status in 1876.

Even still, some argue that the Trade Dollar regained legal tender status with the passage of the Coinage Act of 1965. But why anyone would want to spend a coin that is worth more in bullion than its face value is beyond us.

The Trade Dollar also differed from the more popular Mexican coin. The Mexican coin was four grains lighter than the American coin but struck at a purity of .902778 fine; the U.S. contender was .900 fine. The Japanese and French struck 420-grain dollars but later lowered the weight of their coins to 416 grains.

The Trade Dollar saw heavy circulation in Asia, but the U.S. effort to create a competitive silver trade coin proved to be a mixed bag. After a modest start, coins were struck in the millions at various Mint facilities from 1874 through 1878. After the reintroduction of the silver dollar in 1878, Trade Dollars were produced only as collectible Proof coins.

Domestically circulating Trade Dollars proved to be a nuisance for years after their release and in 1887, Congress passed a law authorizing a six-month redemption period when Trade Dollars could be turned in for silver dollars. This removed most of them from circulation. The Act also repealed all authority for the Mint to coin Trade Dollars. Coins not returned within the six-month window were redeemable only in bullion value.

Total coined: $35,965,924. This number includes $15,631,450 issued while limited legal tender; $20,327,910 from July 22, 1876, to February 22, 1878; and 6,564 Proof pieces issued after July 22, 1876.

Mint records indicate that $28,778,862 worth were exported, $830,561 were imported after the Act of March 3, 1887, and $919,159 were melted at Mint facilities before the Act. $7,689,036 were redeemed, and of that, $5,078,472 were recoined into Morgan Dollars, the remainder into subsidiary coins.

Trade Dollars in Asia

1874-CC with Chopmarks. Image: Stack's Bowers / CoinWeek.
1874-CC Trade Dollar with Chopmarks. Image: Stack’s Bowers / CoinWeek.

Trade Dollars were often counterstamped with chopmarks by Chinese merchants to verify their authenticity. The clarity and aesthetic characteristics of these chopmarks varied from merchant to merchant. For a long period, coin collectors would deeply discount coins that were marked in favor of coins with unimpaired surfaces. Clean coins still sell for significant premiums, but chopmarked Trade Dollars have become increasingly popular as they have been better researched and understood. An excellent book recently published about the topic is William Taylor Leverage’s By Weight, Not By Coyne: An Introduction to Chopmarked Coins (2023).

How Much Are Trade Dollars Worth?

Trade Dollars for circulation were minted from 1873 through 1878. During each of these years, the San Francisco Mint would outproduce the Philadelphia and Carson City Mints. The Trade Dollar became a Proof-only issue starting in 1879 and continuing through 1883, the last year that Trade Dollar Proofs were commercially available. Trade Dollar Proofs minted in 1884 and 1885 were struck secretly and remained unknown to the coin-collecting community until 1907; all can be traced back to a Philadelphia coin dealer named William K. Idler.

For business strike Trade Dollars, the San Francisco issues tend to be the cheapest due to their availability. Carson City Mint coins often sell at premium prices due to their scarcity in Mint State grades and the allure of this iconic branch mint. The Philadelphia Mint pieces are modestly priced based on their condition scarcity.

Circulated examples up to Extra Fine may command prices over $300, depending on the date. Unfortunately, most circulated examples have been cleaned or damaged. A May 12, 2024, eBay sale of an original 1877-S Trade Dollar in NGC AU58 for $622 is a fair read on the current market for a type coin at this level. Ten days earlier, a PCGS AU53 CAC 1878-CC Trade Dollar, a much scarcer coin and the key to the business strike series, sold for $9,499 on the platform. Collectors looking for Choice Uncirculated Trade Dollars from the more common dates should expect to pay over $3,000 per coin.

Proofs generally track higher than comparable business strikes up to near-Gem, which reverses at Gem and higher. Proofs from 1884 and 1885 are extremely rare, with 10 pieces and five pieces struck, respectively. It is not unusual to see prices over $500,000 for the quality 1884 example or prices over $1 million for 1885.

The Trade Dollar in CoinWeek Video

  • Cool Coins! 2019 Episode 3: 1885 Trade Dollar, 1652 Pine Tree Shilling, and More!

 

In Episode 3 of Cool Coins! 2019, CoinWeek’s Charles Morgan talks to John Brush, President and Owner of DLRC (David Lawrence Rare Coins), about his company’s acquisition of the finest known 1885 Trade Dollar.

 

Charles talks to Heritage cataloguer Mark Borckardt about several important lots in a 2017 FUN Show auction, including an 1884 Trade Dollar.

Extended Coverage on CoinWeek

Rare U.S. coin expert and CoinWeek contributor Greg Reynolds analyzes the market for the series in two of his multi-part columns of tips for collectors.

How Thick is the U.S. Trade Dollar?

Numismatic researcher and CoinWeek contributor Roger Burdette addresses an aspect of coins that we take for granted today but that was a considerable matter in the 19th century.

Chopmarked Dollars in the Current Coin Market

CoinWeek contributor Tyler Rossi discusses the fascinating and growing market for chopmarked Trade Dollars.

A highly counterfeited series, NGC offers some diagnostic tips to potential collectors.

Design

Obverse:

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, and 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 national motto IN GOD WE TRUST. Thirteen six-pointed stars encircle the top two-thirds of the design inside a denticulated rim, and the date is centered at the bottom.

Reverse:

An eagle with outstretched but partially folded wings is placed in the center of the reverse, surmounted by a banner that displays the national motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. The eagle clutches three arrows in the right claw and an olive branch in the left. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. encircles the top inside a denticulated rim, with TRADE DOLLAR. at the bottom. Above TRADE DOLLAR. 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.

Edge:

The edge of all issues in the series is reeded.

Varieties

There are many known, including minor obverse and reverse design changes, die variations, overpunches, and die doubling. The best-known varieties are probably the 1875 S Over CC overpunch and the 1876-CC Doubled Die.

Coin Specifications

Trade Dollar
Years Of Issue: 1873-85
Mintage (Business Strikes): High: 9,519,000 (1877-S); Low: 97,000 (1878-CC)
Mintage (Proofs): High: 1,987 (1880); Low: 5 (1885).
Alloy: .900 silver, .100% copper
Weight: 27.22 g
Diameter: 38.10 mm
Edge: Reeded
OBV Designer: William Barber
REV Designer: William Barber

 

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References

Bowers, Q. David. The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Whitman Publishing.

–. A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Whitman Publishing.

–. A Buyer’s Guide to Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States. Zyrus Press.

Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Doubleday.

Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Arco Publishing.

Yeoman, R.S. and Jeff Garrett (editor). The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. Whitman Publishing.
 

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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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