The term “trade last” means: A quoted compliment offered by one who heard it in exchange for a compliment; reciprocal praise; adulatory tit-for-tat.
Although a contributor to American Speech (October, December, 1948) tells of a friend of seventy-odd who “has known trade last in Kansas as far back as she can remember,” the expression was sheer Greek to me when, coming from Ohio, I first heard it on Staten Island, New York, in the very early 1890’s.
In either case, however, that would indicate that it was used as early as the 1880’s. But where it originated and under what circumstance cannot be guessed.
“Last,” in the expression, means that the speaker will not submit his tidbit of praise until the prospective recipient has first come across with a compliment, but why the adjective follows the noun is another mystery.
The abbreviation to T. L. was introduced some forty years ago, probably a collegiate coinage which speedily became so popular that many young people are unfamiliar with the words so abbreviated.