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).
The silver situation. (Much of this silver information is from John M. Willem, The United States Trade Dollar.) From 1834 through 1844 the United States produced from its own mines and other deposits only an average of $25,000 a year in silver bullion. From 1845 to 1858 the average was just $51,000. In 1859 production increased to $105,000 a year with the Comstock Lode, $156,800 in 1860, $2,062,000 in 1861, nearly $5 million in 1862, and nearly $9 million in 1863. (Although such figures have a ring of exactness to them, estimates varied widely. Government reports furnished some numbers, data from express companies and banks (including Wells, Fargo & Co.) provided other information, and contemporary texts on gold and silver gave in some instances still other numbers.)
Hepburn in History of Currency in the United States, p.256, has a table which is titled "Silver Coin and Bullion imported into, and exported from, the United States," and shows export surpluses in seven years prior to 1860: 1845 export $5,551,070, import $3,251,392; 1848 export $4,770,419, import $2,951,529; 1849 export $3,432,415, import $2,582,593; 1850 export $2,962,367, import $2,852,086; 1851 export $6,635,839, import $1,884,413; 1852 export $2,600,150, import $1,846,985; 1853 export $2,044,017, import $1,774,026. Much of the silver probably was in the form of coins of other nations rather than domestic issues.
From 1841 to 1860, the United States imported about $147 million worth of silver while producing from its own mines only about 1 % of that amount. From the first time records were kept in America until 1860, this country yielded only about 928,500 ounces of silver. Thus, the United States was not in the position to make silver coins for export in quantity, as parties within the states had to import silver themselves or obtain it by melting down coins of other nations, particularly Mexico, which were abundant in domestic circulation. The Mint did not need to make a trade dollar or any other coin in order to find a market for American silver. Not until the mid-1860s was there a widespread desire on the part of silver producers to expand their markets to help consume the production.
Snowden's silver data: In 1884, Hon. Archibald Loudon Snowden, who had been superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint since 1879, and whose father, James Ross Snowden, was one of the most knowledgeable Mint directors ever, furnished James G. Blaine, long-time congressman, with estimates of the annual domestic production of silver from 1850 to 188l (Blaine, Twenty Years of Congress, Vol. II, pp. 610-611. The figure of $500,000 is given for 1858 in the Blaine text, but, presumably, this is an error and $50,000 was intended; I use the $50,000 figure here.)
Presumably, the Snowden figures are among the most accurate available, although they are not as precise-appearing as certain other estimates: 1850 through 1858, $50,000 domestic production annually; 1859, first year of the Comstock Lode, $100,000; 1860, $150,000; 1861, the first year of great exploitation of the Comstock, $2 million; 1862, $4.5 million; 1863, $8.5 million; 1864, $11 million; 1865,$11.25 million; 1866, $.10 million; 1867, $13.5 million; 1868, $12 million; 1869, $12 million; 1870, $16 million; 1871, $23 million; 1872, $28.75 million; 1873, last year of Liberty Seated dollar coinage, $35.75 million. From 1850 through 1873, production of silver elsewhere in the world, not including the United States, was estimated at about $40 million annually, with little change from year to year.
Use of silver dollars: Silver dollars of the 1864 year did not circulate domestically, and their rarity today is explained by the fact that most were exported.
Circulated grades: The story of low-mintage dollars of the earlier 1860s recurs here, and specimens of circulation strike 1864 dollars are very elusive. Take a low mintage to begin with, and export most of that, and survivors became numismatic rarities.
Mint State grades: Mint State 1864 dollars are very rare, but when they do appear they are apt to be in higher levels, an unusual situation. Perhaps some Assay Commission coins survived; if so, these would have been in higher grades. Walter H. Breen suggests that a few Mint State coins could have come from original Proof sets, but I have never seen a Mint State coin in any original Proof set of this era, and I have handled quite a few.
High-grade coins typically have extensive die striae, as struck, on the obverse and reverse, making it appear to the uninitiated as if the coin had been cleaned or brushed. This characteristic is similar to that seen on dollars of 1862.
1.High Date: Breen-5470. Circulation strikes have date above center, with 6 and 4 of date not touching.
Note: Circa 1867-1868 a new 1864-dated obverse die was made and used to strike patterns in copper, aluminum, and silver with IN GOD WE TRUST on the reverse. The With-Motto reverse first appeared on regular Proof dollars of late 1866 and early 1867.
Dies prepared: Obverse: Unknown; Reverse: Unknown
Circulation strike mintage: 30,700; Delivery figures by day: January 13: 5,700; April 30: 2,000; May 17: 8,500; July 29: 14,500.
Estimated quantity melted: Unknown
Characteristics of striking: Most are very well struck.
Known hoards of Mint State coins: None
Most circulation strike dollars of this date were exported.
Pollock on the Silver Dollar
In the Annual Report of the Director of the Mint, 1864, James Pollock reiterated his stance against having the silver dollar made to a different weight standard than other silver coins: "Permit me again to refer to the anomalous character of the silver dollar of the United States, and to the observations on this subject in former reports. The whole dollar should be made, in weight and value, the exact multiple of our fractional silver currency, and the gold dollar should be, by law, declared the unit value of our money."
Silver in China
The Westminster Review, January 1864, commented as follows on China:
"[An important feature] of Eastern trade is the manner in which it absorbs precious metals. This is a peculiarity so intimately bound up with the social condition of the East, that it is likely to last as long as their ignorance and their mutual mistrust."
The account went on to say that China had an insatiable demand for silver. "Of late the demand for Mexican 1 dollars in China has caused them to command prices above their intrinsic worth; but this is only a consequence of Chinese barbarism, it cannot be taken as entering into the price of silver any more than the still more excessive premium they were content to pay for Spanish pillar dollars, which amounted to nearly 20% of their value. Indeed, it is only the absolute exhaustion of that once almost universal currency that induced the Chinese authorities, in 1855, to publish a tariff at which the Mexican dollar should circulate in China. No stronger proof can be required of the absorbing power of the East than the fact that the Chinese demand has absolutely swallowed up the most extensively known silver coin that ever existed in the world. The celebrated piece of eight. .. will soon become a numismatic curiosity."