The sweeping Mint Act of February 12, 1873 terminated the standard silver dollar of 412.5 grains, but it also authorized a new trade dollar weighing 420 grains. This coin was intended to provide a means for American businessmen to trade with merchants in China and Southeast Asia, where the coin of choice had long been the Mexican eight reales piece. By offering the Asians an American dollar of slightly higher intrinsic value, it was hoped that American traders would no longer have to buy the Mexican coins at a premium.
Almost as an afterthought, Congress provided the trade dollar with a domestic legal tender value limit of five dollars. When the price of silver fell to a point at which it became profitable to circulate these coins domestically, they quickly became a nuisance. Congress acted in 1876 by eliminating the trade dollar's legal tender status, which only aggravated the problem, as now the coins could be refused by banks and businesses. Their manufacture was suspended early in 1878, but it was not until 1887 that Congress finally announced a plan to redeem the despised coins at face value. Only proofs had been produced since 1878, and the extremely rare pieces dated 1884 and 1885 were evidently coined for private distribution without official authority.
In their own time, trade dollars were popular with collectors who sought to obtain a proof example of each date. The proof-only dates of 1879-83 became the subject of speculative buying, and their mintages were higher than usual. Otherwise, there was little interest in this series until well into the 20th Century. With no legal status, the coins remained available below face value for decades, until the price of silver finally began to recover.
The collecting of trade dollars by date and mint has lately become quite popular. While dates such as 1873-CC, 1875 and 1878-CC are scarce, most issues are obtainable with patience. The sole exceptions are the extremely rare proofs of 1884 and 1885, which are not considered a regular part of the series.
While there are few collectors specializing in trade dollar die varieties, the spectacular nature of some of these varieties has attracted interest from more generalized variety collectors. The 1875-S/CC issue is a popular enough trade dollar mintmark variety to be included in the Red Book, and it is sought by date/mint collectors of this series. Also appealing to advanced collectors are the various obverse and reverse transitional hub varieties of 1875-77, and these have recently been added to the Red Book.