1877 Testimony on Trade Dollars

The Annual Report of the Director of the Mint, 1877, noted that the biggest silver producing state was Nevada, which yielded approximately $26 million worth per year, followed by Utah at $5 million, Colorado at $4 1/2 million, California at $1 million, Montana at $750,000, Arizona and New Mexico at $500,000 each, Idaho at $250,000, Oregon at $100,000, Washington at $50,000. In addition, the Lake Superior region generated about $200,000.

Related in the same report were testimonies and comments of leading bankers and others, including Dr. Richard Henry Linderman (director of the Mint), before the United States Treasury Commission in relation to trade dollar coinage and other items, with the chairman (name not stated) doing the questioning. The report gives a fascinating insight:

The chairman is now asking questions of M.M. Tompkins, an agent of the Hong-Kong and Shanghai Bank:

"Q. What effect on the bullion market here has the coinage of trade dollars had, in your judgment?

"A. It has been of great benefit to the silver producers, in bringing silver up in this market.

"Q. It has been the means of converting a large amount of silver into a convenient form for shipping?

"A. Yes, sir.

"Q. They have, to a great measure, taken the place of the silver circulating in that country?

"A. Yes, sir: they have not thoroughly supplied it, but they are crowding it out of the market, and taking the place of it to some extent.

"Q. Trade dollars are now practically current in Hong-Kong, Canton, Foo-Chow, Ah Mow, and Ong Chow?

"A. Yes, sir.

"Q. And are working their way to as far south as Singapore?

"A. Yes, sir; the largest shipments are made to See Kung for the purchase of rice.

"Q. How much do you think the silver market here has appreciated? How much benefit are the producers of silver deriving to-day from the mere fact that the government is coining trade dollars?

"A. I should fancy fully the cost of transportation between here and London, 2%."

The chairman questions General O.H. LaGrange, superintendent of the San Francisco Mint:

"Question. You heard what Mr. Tompkins said in regard to the trade dollar. Have you been in the habit of shipping those coins?

"A. Not ourselves. I formerly handled many of them, but now not so much, because the business has been concentrated in the hands of larger bankers.

"Q. Would your testimony confirm that of Mr. Tompkins, in regard to the additional value given to silver in the market here?

"A. I think there is no possible question but that the trade dollar has made a very large demand for silver, which would have been a drug here. Formerly, the only means of getting silver to China was in refined silver bars, and those could only be handled by a few persons, by large importers and heavy shippers. Now the trade dollar forms the means of shipment for small dealers. They are shipped in amounts of $100 and upward, and thousands of them are carried away in the hands of passengers privately.

"Q. Do you recollect about the time of the first shipment of fine bars of silver to China from here?

"A. Yes, sir. I was at that time and had formerly been clerk in a bank here, and conceived the idea of having the bars refined here. It was about the time of the heavy shipments of silver from the Comstock down here, 1859, ‘60, ‘61, and silver began to be a drug, because they were crowding it into the mint for half dollars, and they were useless for shipment; and I went to a gentleman here who was a large shipper of Mexican dollars and called his attention to the fact that he could ship refined silver from here to China, thus saving 60 days’ time with a large percentage of insurance, and freight, by shipping direct from here to China, instead of shipping from here to London, and thence by the peninsula to the Orient; and he authorized me to buy a quantity of bullion, cause it to be parted, and he made the shipment to a very great advantage. At that time Mexican dollars were ranging from 12 to 18% premium. He made a shipment of refined silver.


"Question. You are aware that depositors pay the cost of coining those dollars by the government?

"A. Yes, sir.

"Q. Is it your opinion that the government ought to afford every possible facility for coining them?

"A. It seems to me so. I don’t know what we should do with the bulk of silver if it was not disposed of in some such way. I am very well aware that before the coinage of the trade dollar the rate of exchange with China, owing to the scarcity of Mexican dollars, had caused them to change 7% here within a week.

"Q. Always commanding at that time a premium?

"A. Yes, sir. There was an extra duty on them from Mexico which gave them a premium at once; and an additional premium was created by the demand for them for shipment to China, and for many years the range was from 11% to 16%.


"Question. Then, in your opinion, the fact of the government coining trade dollars at the mint here has added to the value of the silver production of the United States very appreciably?

"A. There is no question of that.

Q. Mr. Tompkins stated that he thought that it had raised the value about the cost of the freight and insurance from here to London, which was about 2%. Is that your opinion?

"A. I should think that it had really made a value for the silver greater than that. If there were no trade dollars coined, bar silver would take a range of certainly 4 or 5 and perhaps 6% below its production rate. You were speaking about the returns of the mint. I have had some experience in the United States Assay Office in New York City, and it is not favorable. I have never had any complaint with the mint here, but in New York we had constant complaints and reclamations.

"FUNG CHUNG sworn.


"Question. Your firm has deposited dust in the mint for coinage?

"Answer. Yes, sir.

"Q. And have your returns always been good?

"A. Everything was satisfactory.

"Q. Have you ever put silver in the mint for trade dollars?

"A. No sir, I never did.

"Q. You got your gold returned, and your coin, in good season, and all satisfactory?

"A. Yes, sir; and I never heard complaint from our customers in the country.

"Q. Do your customers in the country, when they send you gold-dust, always want it to go to the mint?

"A. Yes, sir.

"Q. You buy and ship a good deal of bullion to China?

"A. No, sir; a little.

"Q. Don’t you ship trade dollars?

"A. Sometimes; not very large quantities.

"Q. The Chinese do ship large quantities of trade dollars altogether?

"A. Yes, sir; some.

"Q. But when you do ship bullion, what do you usually ship, trade dollars or fine silver?

"A. Trade dollars, and sometimes Mexican dollars.

"Q. Your business is with Hong-Kong chiefly?

"A. Yes, sir.


"Q. Which do you like best to ship, trade dollars or Mexican dollars?

"A. At present trade dollars are better, because we get about 2% more premium on them in China. The premium changes every time. Sometimes Mexican dollars are better and sometimes trade dollars are better.


"Q. The trade dollar in China is growing in favor with the Chinese. Do they like them better?

"A. About the same in local use—the trade dollar and Mexican dollar in Hong-Kong and Canton.

"Q. Do you know anything about Foo-Chow?

"A. No, sir.

"Q. The trade dollar, so far as you know in China, do you find it all correct in weight and everything?

"A. Yes, sir.

"Q. Do you hear no complaint from your correspondents?

"A. We never heard anything from our house in Hong-Kong; never had any complaint. When the trade dollar comes to Hong-Kong it should be sold to the money-brokers.

"Q. Has anybody at the mint ever asked you to pay them any fee or ‘cum chow’ [bribe]?

"A. No, sir.

"Q. Is it all done on the square?

"A. Yes, sir."

Then followed a statement from Louis McLane, president of the Nevada Bank of San Francisco, who had held that office since October 1875. Excerpts:

"The benefit of coining trade dollars is that it gives a better market for silver than fine bars would produce. This bank has had coined and sold in the last twenty-two months over six millions of trade dollars, and their sale has netted more than the average of our sales of silver to the government. Returns of trade dollars from the mint have uniformly been made with honesty and fairness. I only remember one case in which the loss by melting was unusually large; but that was afterward explained.

"Our sales of silver to the government were made direct, through the director of the Mint, mostly by telegraph, except when he was present in person, and were, as specially agreed, free of all commissions or brokerages. In our dealings with the government no commission or brokerage or reward, or any other consideration, has ever been given, in any way, shape, or form, to any officer of the government, or to any one else.

"It will happen, in seasons of low sterling exchange, that silver will rule lower in New York than the equivalent of the London market; but this is quite exceptional.

"The silver sold the government has been delivered at the mints in San Francisco, Carson, and Philadelphia, in sums as required by the director of the Mint.


"SAN FRANCISCO, CAL., August 31, 1877."


Mint Director Reports on Trade Dollars

In 1877, the Annual Report of the Director of the Mint, p. 12, told of the export of San Francisco Mint trade dollars and of the general acceptance of the coins in China. This must have been confusing to certain readers who believed, per conventional wisdom, that overseas demand was declining:

"The trade dollar continues to grow in favor in China, and the demand at San Francisco for the past fiscal year for export to that empire averaged over $687,000 per month, and in some months more than twice that amount was exported.

"On account of its superior mintage, it is difficult to counterfeit, and its close conformity to standard fineness and weight gives it some advantages over its principal competitor, the Mexican dollar, which it is likely to supplant to a still greater extent, notwithstanding the prestige the latter has long enjoyed as the successor of the Spanish dollar, and also some favoritism in its behalf by local customs authorities at certain Chinese ports.

"On the first of October last [1876] there were several hundred thousand Mexican dollars held by bankers in San Francisco. One of these bankers telegraphed to London asking the price at which Mexican dollars could be sold in that city, and received an answer that there was no demand for that coin for export, and it was being used for melting purposes. At the same time the Chinese residents in San Francisco were paying for trade dollars 2 per cent, above the price of Mexican dollars in London, both coins being very nearly equal in intrinsic value. This shows a decided preference for the trade dollar.

"The testimony of intelligent bankers, thoroughly familiar with the Chinese exchanges, (recently given before the United States Treasury commission in San Francisco), shows conclusively that the coinage of trade dollars has been attended with decided advantages both as respects our commercial and mining interests, and there can be no doubt but that it should be continued on a scale equal to the requirements for export to China. It may be added here, that the Japanese government, desiring to reap the benefits of a coinage manufactured exclusively for trade purposes, have followed the example of the United States, and are now coining a trade dollar of the same weight and fineness as our own, with the evident intention of exporting it to China, where it has been made a legal tender at one or two ports. Its general appearance is similar to the ‘yen,’ substituting, however, the English inscription ‘420 trade dollar 900,’ instead of ‘416 one yen 900.’

"The trade dollar has of late entered to some extent into domestic circulation, and this is for the reason that, from time to time since United States notes have appreciated nearly to par with gold, holders of silver bullion have been able to have the same manufactured into these coins, and exchange them at par for United States notes with a small profit. This fact, on becoming known, was regarded as indicating that the trade dollar coinage was, for the time being (October last) in excess of the export demand, and led to the issuing of an order by the secretary of the Treasury to temporarily [!] intermit the receipt of deposits at the mints for these coins.

"There are weighty reasons why the trade dollar should not be coined for domestic circulation, but it is hardly worth while to state them, since the law provides very clearly that they shall be coined only to meet the export demand, and leaves no discretion as to their coinage for any other purpose."


Automatic Weighing Machines

The Annual Report of the Director of the Mint, 1877, p. 7, told of new machines introduced into the Mint to eliminate hand-filing and inspection of planchets for trade dollars and other coins:

"Automatic weighing machines were introduced at the mint in fiscal year 1877 and were used to secure correct weights on trade dollars and gold coins. Two in use at Philadelphia were ordered from Seyss & Company, Atzgersdorf, near Vienna, and for San Francisco one was manufactured by Napier & Son, of London. They have been employed mainly on half dollar planchets, the report noted, and their combined capacity is about 160 blanks per minute. The Napier machine was only recently installed in California and had a capacity of about 40 blanks per minute."