China is one of the great manufacturers of all time. Given its military might and economic clout, an inkling of displeasure or suggestion that it will buy fewer treasuries sends tremors down the spines of international currency traders.
But China was never a country to cross. Even in the nineteenth century tales of the riches of the Orient set hearts thumping and greed ablaze. In days when the sun never set on the British Empire, and Queen Victoria grew from dewy girlhood to dowager, the great seagoing countries of the world coveted everything Asia had to offer, from rich silks to ornate lacquered boxes. Pleasing canny Chinese merchants brought wealth. And so began the tale of unique American silver dollar our government coined to open the China trade..
China has a long and fabled history. Chinese merchants skilled in the use of the abacus calculated at lightening speed long before the slide-rule of pocket protector and nerd fame was a gleam in the Western eye. Similarly, the paper money, now causing consternation as it pours forth in veritable rivers under the ever more controversial eye of Benjamin Bernanke, owes its birth to the issuance of paper “flying money” at the end of the eighth or beginning of the ninth century in China.
“Flying currency” was so-named because a wind could blow the light notes out of the holder’s hands. We can certainly relate. Our money seems to fly out of our hands with ever-increasing velocity, especially since the development of credit cards. Flying currency was originally promissory notes issued by merchants and backed by real cash deposited in the Chinese state capital and used to facilitate trade in the provinces. It was acceptable payment for taxes.
When the Mongols took over, they redeemed these older currencies backed by the reputations and hard currency of the merchants and substituted “silk notes” backed by silk yarn, not gold. The “hard” currency behind this was the softest, and most valuable product of the land. At first all went well, but then the rulers yielded to temptation and began increasing the money supply. The system came to a screeching halt around 1350 with the fall of both currency and Mongol government through casual inflation that started with the second issuance of Mongol currency.
The Chinese were no virgins when Westerners came a-calling shortly after the American Civil War. They had seen it all, bought the tee-shirt and knocked-off the tee-shirt. They sized up the puny, underweight “cartwheel” silver dollars offered by the Americans and told them to come back with some real money. The result was the extra-heavy Trade Dollar specifically minted for China, Korea and Japan and kept there.
The Trade Dollar weighed in at a hefty 420 grains of 900 fine silver. That’s right. 90% pure, a real pocket buster. William Barber, Chief Engraver of the Mint was the designer. He was the father of engraver Charles Barber, of Barber dime, quarter and half-dollar fame. This big-mama was America’s in-your-face to Spanish, Mexican and British competition for the Asian trade. The standard Morgan and Peace Dollars circulating from 1878 through the early twentieth century in the United States weighed in at a mere 412.5 grains of 900 fine silver.
Just to make sure the merchants got the point, the weight and silver composition was printed right on the dollar, but merchants tested each themselves and added “chop marks” unique to each business that assured the careful Chinese of the bonafides of each piece. The Trade Dollar circulated from 1873 to 1885 and in Japan and Korea as well.
These remain some of the rarest American coins. Prized by type-coin collectors who collect examples of every American coin design issued, unmutilated pieces are quite rare and sell at a premium.
Considering that fewer than 1,000 Trade Dollars were minted in a good year, while the truly rare specimens of 1884 and 1885 number no more than 15 pieces for both years combined, the ability to pick up specimens for less than a thousand dollars in first-class condition is astonishing. Lack of popularity and knowledge of the coin’s existence is to blame. In comparison, key dates and mints of popular coin series like Lincoln pennies go for more even though they were originally minted in the tens or hundreds of thousands.