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):
Production limited to Proofs this year: No more business strikes were coined; only Proofs were made, for collectors, dated through 1885. The various mints were instead making enormous quantities of Morgan dollars, unacceptable in China, circulating little in the United States, and mostly staying in bank vaults and the Treasury.
An influx of trade dollars: By 1879, trade dollars of earlier dates were flowing back into the United States in quantity (see Mint report reprinted below).
Popular speculation: There arose in 1879, and continued into 1880, a popular numismatic speculation (later extended to the general public). Word spread that certain coins were of low mintage and would become rare. The "best" condition was considered to be Proofs (business strikes were generally ignored and, in any event, were not available in the trade dollar series). Emphasis was on nickel three-cent pieces and trade dollars, both denominations of which were minted in record Proof numbers. A heightened interest developed in other Mint products as well, especially patterns. Several years later this speculation would extend to regular issue Proof and business strike gold dollars.
Proof mintage: The fever to squirrel away Proof trade dollars did not develop until later in 1879, as the monthly Proof production figures reveal: January: 122; February: 96; March: 75; April: 119; May: 90; June: 140; July: 40; August: 45; September: 89; October: 64; November: 80; and, finally, December with a whopping 581.
An examination of the monthly figures for the following year, 1880 (see next listing), reveals that production of 1880 Proofs was strongest early in that year, but soon faded. Apparently, the Proof trade dollar boom was very short-lived (reminiscent of some booms today!) and extended only from December 1879 through the early part of 1880.
Availability of Proofs today: Most specimens were saved, but with varying degrees of care. Examples are readily available, for a price, in the different grade levels from Proof-60 to Proof-65.
Varieties: (Trade dollars dated "1879-S" are counterfeits; they are oversize, with detached berry below claw as if imitating the 1873-76 Type 1.)
OBVERSE TYPE II, RIBBON ENDS POINT DOWN, 1876-1885
REVERSE TYPE II: NO BERRY BELOW CLAW, 1875-1885
1. First variety: Breen-5825. Top of 8 imperfect (very slightly chipped logotype). Edge of left side of 7 below and slightly to the right of the center of E in IN GOD WE TRUST. Reverse with full feathers. Normal serifs and periods, evidently from a new hub. One in the Katen Sale, June 1992, Lot 115, had Proof surface between eagle's claw and branch; arrow feathers incomplete and with Proof surface between fragments; this die was also used in 1883 (and possibly in other years).
2. Second variety: Obverse with top of 8 imperfect as above, but with lower left of 1 in date repunched and appearing doubled at the left end of the serif (under magnification). Edge of left side of 7 in line with right side of E in IN GOD WE TRUST. Reverse as No. 1.
3. Third variety: Obverse die probably one of the above (not seen by the author). Reverse with many incomplete feathers in eagle's legs and lower belly. Cf. 1974 GENA auction, Lot 1181 and Gilhousen (Superior) sale, Lot 1478.
Dies prepared: Obverse: Unknown; Reverse: Unknown
Proof mintage: 1,541. Delivery figures by month: January: 122; February: 96; March: 75; April: 119; May: 90;June: 140;July: 40; August: 45; September: 89; October: 64; November: 80; December: 581.
Characteristics of striking: Usually well struck.
Proof-only issue made for collectors; no business strikes were produced.
Trade Dollar News in 1879
The Annual Report of the Director of the Mint, 1879, contained the following relating to trade dollars:
"From an examination of the customs records it appears that there has been importation since July 1, 1877 of about 10 millions [apparently in value] of United States silver coin, of which about $6.5 million was subsidiary, and over three million trade dollars.
"Beginning on May 25, 1878 the Japanese government made the [Japanese] silver trade dollar 420 grains legal tender in payment of all debts. As it was four grains heavier than the Mexican dollar it was believed that it would drive the Mexican dollar out of circulation. What happened is that many pieces were simply melted and disposed of as bullion at their higher value. In November 1878 the coinage of the Japanese trade dollar was suspended, and replacing it was the silver yen of 416 grains which has been continued since."
Trade Dollar Exports Reviewed
The Annual Report of the Director of the Mint, 1879, is the source for most of the following information:
Exports of this denomination began with 3 million pieces (a figure partly estimated) in June 1874. In June 1875 4-1/2 million trade dollars (partly estimated) were exported, followed by 4-1/2 million (partly estimated) in June 1876 and 269,108 in July 1876. At this time the trade dollar was demonetized in the United States. Exports occurred at more regular intervals, and by October 31, 1879 the grand total was 27,089,817.
Exports amounted to over a million pieces in fiscal year 1879 (July 1, 1878 to June 30, 1879). Business strikes had last been coined in April 1878. During the same period, but primarily during the last half of 1878, 1,216,874 trade dollars had been shipped from San Francisco to the Orient.
However, in New York, during the same fiscal year an estimated 1.2 million trade dollars returned to the United States from or through England during the same period.(London was the world's primary trading point for silver, and values were computed as of that location. Quantities of United States trade dollars found their way to London from China and India.) From 1879 through 1881 some 2,074,812 trade dollars came back to the United States, but only 114,935 came from China through San Francisco. This figure does not include any that might have returned prior to July 1, 1878, as no examples were officially reported before then. None was reported after June 30, 1881, but over the years since 1881 many thousands of trade dollars have come back, with or without chopmarks.
What Might Have Been
On December 16, 1878, the Engraving Department of the Philadelphia Mint, acting on the orders of Director Horatio Burchard (who anticipated there would be a coinage of 1879-S trade dollars), shipped five obverse dies dated 1879 to San Francisco. However, no coinage materialized.