Maui trade ‘dollars’ are Hawaii’s unofficial coinage

Souvenir tokens debuted just before 1959 statehood, continue today
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 02/21/17
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The United States has a long history of unofficial coins and tokens that have circulated alongside official Mint issues.

For example, the 19th century saw a wide variety of gold coins issued by private firms, some of which lasted only a few years, but many of which have become valuable pieces of our nation’s history and heritage. As well, a huge variety of privately issued copper tokens circulated in the growing nation before and during the Civil War.  

Much, much more recently, groups of local businesses in different areas of the country have printed paper currency that competes legally with that of the federal government. 

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One coin-like series of medals or tokens that roughly parallels such local currencies are the Maui trade dollars.

The genesis of Maui’s ‘dollar’

Maui trade dollars have been issued in a long string going back decades, but with some dormant years between what are now referred to as the different series. 

The first issue was in 1959, as a means to commemorate Hawaii’s upcoming statehood. After a decade-plus gap, what now is called Series Two was issued from 1973 to 1976, and the pieces show the Iao Needle, a mount famous in the Iao Valley that gained National Natural Landmark status in 1972. From 1976 until 1992, Series Three dollars were issued, with some collector versions in silver, or with gold plating. 

The current issues — generally called the Series Four dollars — were first issued in 1992 as a way to promote local business concerns and generate some interest and business opportunities for those on the island who were willing to accept them in the channels of regular commerce. 

Unlike what has been called “local currency,” which generally means a modern paper currency that functions alongside Federal Reserve notes, right from the get-go Maui trade dollars were big, silver dollar-sized tokens or medals. They have a heft and feel in the hand that engenders confidence in them, and in them having some kind of worth.

Undoubtedly, part of the appeal of these trade dollars is that they are about as large as traditional United States silver dollars. What can be called the circulating Maui trade dollars are copper-nickel pieces that are 39 millimeters in diameter. 

The side we might call the obverse changes each year, sporting different designs, many of them including a whale (since whales often frequent the waters near the island), but the reverse has been pretty standard over time. All the way back to the 1992 issue of these dollars and their first whale image, the reverse displays the value — numerically as well as in wording — and the phrase THE VALLEY ISLE runs across the bottom, while in small print we find “Good for one dollar in trade at participating merchants during [on that first issue] 1992.”

As we might expect, the year at the end of the phrase does change. The only other major change on that side is the upgrade that occurred when these pieces went from a $1 value to the current $2 value, beginning with the 2008 issues.

One further common feature on this series, known for its constantly beautiful changing designs, is the wording “Maui no ka oi.” It’s not hard to realize this is a phrase in Hawaiian, transliterated into English lettering. 

Something this short and sweet ought to be easy to translate, but it turns out Hawaiian must be a very different language than English, at least in terms of the underlying thought process, as there appears to be some healthy online discussion and debate as to whether those four words mean, “Maui is the best,” or perhaps, “Maui, nothing better,” or perhaps the lettering is wrong, and it should read, “Maui no ka ‘oi.” If the subtleties of the phrase escape us, that’s no major problem, as the beauty of the designs remains inescapable.

Collector issues from Maui

It didn’t take long for the organizers behind Maui trade dollars to recognize that there is a certain collector appeal to local issues like this. 

There has certainly been the possibility, right from the first production of these dollars — back in 1959 — that tourists would want to take a few home as souvenirs. After all, they are big, attractive pieces that sport images of the island, or of its flora, fauna, geography or culture. And for every trade dollar some tourist bought and carried away, well, the U.S. dollar spent to make the purchase stayed on the island.

But the fine folks at the Maui Trade Dollar Association (what they call the MTDA) have taken the love that collectors have for coins and for building a collection a few steps further. A person can now purchase a silver version of these dollars — big guns that are an ounce in weight — as well as gold-plated silver versions. The MTDA is an organized group with a well-designed website that includes an online store. Currently, a set of the three different versions of the most recent dollars costs less than $100, and appears to come in a velvet-lined display case. A single copper-nickel piece costs less than $10. And yes, a person can order just about any combination of the three.

You can’t go back in time

For the person looking to find a new collecting challenge, the Maui trade dollars can be a very good one. 

But for those of us who can’t just hop on a jet to Maui, we’ll need to find some other sources for those pieces that will become our collection. That just-mentioned website seems like an excellent place to start. But the people running the MTDA are not in the business of stockpiling past years’ issues, and that means one-stop shopping will most likely not work for assembling an entire date run of these dollars. 

The two obvious next places to look for unofficial dollars like these are at larger numismatic shows, and on the Internet. 

The advantage of shopping at regional or national shows (or at a well-stocked dealer’s store) is that any Maui trade dollars we find are right there for purchase, no extra postage, no waiting. Even the older ones are not particularly expense, largely because this remains a somewhat undercollected area. 

The downside of building a collection from show shopping is perhaps obvious: it’s hit or miss. Dealers don’t always stock these, as some consider them just another kind of token.

Onward then, to the Internet. A person can certainly start at eBay and simply look at what the wide world of online traders has to offer. From the large number of single pieces and sets of multiple pieces that we found during a recent search it shouldn’t be too hard to cobble together a full set of what we have called the Series Four dollars. The prices all appear to be rather inexpensive. A smattering of the older trade dollars depicting the Iao Needle turn up as well, and they are not priced too much higher than their more recent siblings.

One further way to track down and capture more Maui trade dollars would involve connecting with the folks at the MTDA. 

As mentioned, the association does not appear to keep a stock of older dollars. But it’s a fair bet that longtime active members have some memories of Maui businesses and interested parties who might have kept these pieces over the years and decades. A polite inquiry may lead down some paths that could become potentially quite interesting.

If you are still on the fence, and would like some more information before trying to add a set of these trade dollars to your personal collection, visit mauitradedollar.com, the Maui trade dollar website.

It’s the official site, has some interesting history about the program, and connects to the MTDA store. It proudly (but incorrectly) proclaims the Maui trade dollars as being the “longest continuous running exonumia program in the United States,” which undoubtedly would be something of which the people in charge could be proud. 

Maui trade dollars are definitely a great way to break into collecting unofficial local issues. Building a collection may lead down some interesting routes that connect to other series of unofficial coinage that are a part of United States history. And whatever else happens along the way, creating a collection like this can be a great deal of fun. 

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Older Comments (1)
Aloha from Maui. Thank you for your article about the Maui Trade Dollar Association. We do offer previously issued Maui Trade Dollars from 1996-2017, some in very limited amounts in silver .999 troi ounce, gold-plated and cupronickel. We're working on posting the older coins to our website. In the meantime, anyone who is interested in receiving our annual newsletter and order form for the previously issued coins can go to our website (mauitradedollar.com) and sign up - or email us directly at mauidollars@gmail.com. Mahalo nui loa. MTDA