Trade Dollars (1873-1885)

The silver trade dollar was an interesting, anomalous and short-lived denomination. Authorized by the Coinage Act of 1873, the trade dollar was manufactured for circulation overseas. They were intended to facilitate trade with East Asia and compete with the Mexican 8 Reales and other similar trade coins popular in Asia at the time. 

At 420 grains, the trade dollar was slightly heavier than the 412.5 grain standard domestic silver dollar. The design, by William Barber, was reminiscent of the Liberty seated coinage, with some modifications. The seated personification of Liberty faces the viewer's left, representing the direction of the Orient. Liberty is seated upon a bale of cotton; behind her is a sheaf of wheat. The prominent placement of the commercial goods indicates the intent behind the coin. 

Initially, trade dollars were legal tender within the U.S. in amounts up to five dollars, but they proved unpopular at home. They routinely traded for less than one dollar, and public disdain led to their demonetization for domestic use in 1876. They remained popular in Asia, and may have remained in production for quite some time, were it not for the silver purchase requirements of the Bland-Allison Act of 1878. That Act required the U.S. government to purchase enormous amounts of silver to be coined into standard domestic silver dollars – the coins that became known as Morgan dollars. These requirements left little option for continuing to produce trade dollars, which were discontinued after 1878. Examples dated 1879 through 1885 are proof-only coins made especially for sale to collectors, not for use in trade. 

Trade dollars were minted at Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Carson City, Nevada. Mintmarks, when present, occur on the reverse below the eagle’s tail. The 1878-CC is rare. All the 1878-1883 proof coins have mintages below 2,000 coins each, but are collectible. The 1884 and 1885 coins are also proof-only, and extreme rarities, with mintages of only 10 and 5 coins, respectively.

Examples that circulated in China are often found with chopmarks, or incuse-punched characters and symbols. These are collectible in their own right. Forgeries of trade dollars abound, authentication is recommended. The trade dollar was belatedly re-monetized under the Coinage Act of 1965.


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