United States Trade Dollars were authorized under the Mint Act of 1873, which had suspended production of the silver dollar. The new silver coins carried different specifications and were struck primarily for the purpose of export trade with Asia. Many surviving examples attest to this as they were counter stamped with Oriental characters or chop marks. Within the United States, the coins were initially legal tender for payments up to five dollars. When the price of silver plummeted, the legal tender status was revoked. After 1878, the series was only struck in limited quantities in proof format.
The Trade Dollar was designed by William Barber and was loosely based on the design of contemporary silver coins in circulation designed by Christian Gobrecht. The obverse features an image of Liberty, seated on bales of merchandise in what appears to be a harbor or beach by the sea. Her right hand extends an olive branch, and her left holds a scroll inscribed LIBERTY. The motto IN GOD WE TRUST appears at the base, with the date below and thirteen stars surrounding.
On the reverse, a bald eagle is pictured with its wings spread and a bundle of arrows and a branch in its talons. Under the eagle is the weight and fineness of the coin, appearing as 420 GRAINS, 900 FINE. The inscriptions UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and TRADE DOLLAR appear above and below, with E PLURIBUS UNUM appearing on a banner directly above the eagle. Except for some minor modifications, this design would remain the same until the last coins of the series were struck.
The American Trade Dollar proved to be a success, and circulation mintages were fairly large, with the exception of a few issues like the 1873-CC and 1878-CC. A number of different varieties exist, as listed in the Red Book, but very few people actively collect the series by die variety. A number of doubled dies exist, along with repunched dates, and perhaps the most enigmatic of the series, the 1875-S/CC. This variety employed a reverse die which was first meant for the Carson City Mint, but was later used at the San Francisco Mint. Part of the underlying mintmark remains visible, although it might be weak on worn examples.
Circulated Trade Dollars are available without much difficulty for most dates, however higher grade uncirculated examples are rare to extremely rare. The coins of this series did what they were supposed to do and were exported and circulated. Yet, for every issue at least a few near-gems or gems have survived, allowing a few high-end sets to be assembled. Proofs are easier to acquire, although the two famous rarities of the series, the 1884 and 1885 seldom appear for sale in any grade.