Q. David Bowers: The following narrative, with minor editing, is from my "Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia" (Wolfeboro, NH: Bowers and Merena Galleries, Inc., 1993):
Mintage limited to Proofs: Reflecting the dwindling fad, mintage of 1881 trade dollars (all Proofs)was once again nearly equal to the number of silver Proof sets minted (960 trade dollars vs. 975 of other silver denominations).
Influx of business strikes continues: During 1881the influx of earlier-dated trade dollars from foreign countries, primarily London, continued.
Speculation no longer a factor: By 1881, speculation was no longer a major factor in the market, and production of Proof trade dollars reverted to its normal level. Monthly figures are as follows: January: none; February: 300; March: 175; April: 85; May: 40; June: 70; July: none; August: 10; September: 25;October: 51; November: 38; and December: 166. The total for the year came to 960.
Who bought them: Although the exact figures will never be known, I estimate that about half of these went to individual numismatists, some of whom ordered a duplicate or two; most of the remaining half went to dealers such as J.W. Scott (in particular), Ebenezer Mason, Jr., and others who had a wide trade. Inevitably, a few went to non-collectors who were casually interested in coins, some of whom ordered coins for anniversaries, holidays, or special events; such orders probably amounted to fewer than 50 coins. The same general comment concerning distribution can be made for most other Proof trade dollar dates of 1875-78 and 1881-83.
Poor workmanship: Most of the Proofs of this year were poorly struck and exhibit flatness in areas, particularly on the head of Miss Liberty and on the upper stars. This was due to incorrect die setting in the press. Poor striking continued to be a problem into 1883.
Availability of Proofs: Examples are available in various Proof grades from Proof-60 to Proof-65 or so. A few impaired and worn Proofs also exist.
OBVERSE TYPE II, RIBBON ENDS POINT DOWN, 1876-1885
REVERSE TYPE II: NO BERRY BELOW CLAW, 1875-1885
1. Regular Proof issue: Breen-5827. Usually seen with flat head and stars. Obverse die retouched in a minor repair attempt. Drapery incomplete at sea. Reverse with incomplete feathers at inner edge of eagle's right leg (this die was reused in 1882).
1a. Another reverse exists with minute, almost microscopic, die doubling on the inscription 420 GRAINS, 900 Fine (not as pronounced as on the 1882 die described below); very well struck, with all obverse and reverse features sharply defined.
Dies prepared: Obverse: Unknown; Reverse: Unknown. 2 or more. (One pair was destroyed on January 14, 1882; evidently at least one reverse was held over for 1882 use.)
Proof mintage: 960. Delivery figures by month: January: none; February: 300; March: 175; April: 85; May: 40; June: 70; July: none; August: 10; September: 25; October: 51; November: 38; December: 166.
Characteristics of striking: Often lightly struck with flatness on some stars. This problem continued into 1883.
Proof-only issue. made for collectors; no business strikes were produced.