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
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
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
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.