In the eighteenth century, a cash-strapped French government began selling rente viagère, in which an investor paid an up-front sum pegged to someone’s life—sometimes the king or the pope—and received returns until death. A group of Genevan bankers diversified their portfolio in the 1770s by buying rente contracts on the lives of thirty wealthy young Genevan girls. The fund gained popularity; by 1789 a significant portion of French debt was owed on the lives of just these “thirty heads.”
Herodotus reports that after Cyrus the Great was warned by a Spartan herald not to tread further into Greek lands, the Persian king received a primer on Sparta, including an explanation of an agora, to inform his response. “I have never yet been afraid of any men,” he told the herald, “who have a set place in the middle of their city where they come together to cheat each other.”
Economist Frédéric Bastiat published a parodic open letter to French parliament in 1845 that imagined the national lighting industry lobbying for a law to black out all windows in response to the “ruinous competition” of the sun, which was “flooding the domestic market.” “Be logical,” the letter concludes, “for as long as you ban, as you do, foreign coal, iron, wheat, and textiles, in proportion as their price approaches zero, how inconsistent it would be to admit the light of the sun, whose price is zero all day long!”
A fish seller in Kuwait began gluing googly eyes on rotting fishes’ eye sockets in August 2018 in an attempt to make his wares appear fresher; in response, a rival seller began marketing his own fresh fish as “without cosmetic surgery.” The story went viral online, bringing it to the attention of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, which promptly shut the first shop down.
A seventeenth-century rabbinical decision tells of a German town in which wealthy Jewish households kept chickens, while poorer women secretly milked gentiles’ cows early in the morning to sell the purloined milk on the street. One time, some chicks hopped into a tub of milk left on a doorstep and drowned. “Each side suffered a financial loss,” the text reads. “One from the milk, the other from the drowned chicks.”
Including trademarks in books became crucial after the invention of the printing press; without stringent copyright laws, rival publishers could repurpose superiorly edited texts with impunity. Aldus Manutius of Venice, who employed Erasmus as a proofreader, called attention to his company’s “sign of the dolphin wound round the anchor.” Florentine printers were aping the mark, but in the frauds, “the head of the dolphin is turned to the left, whereas that of ours is well known to be turned to the right.”
James Boswell recorded that during the sale of Henry Thrale’s brewery, Samuel Johnson—an executor of the business—“appeared bustling about, with an inkhorn and pen in his buttonhole, like an exciseman,” and was asked what he considered to be the true value of the property. “We are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats,” Johnson responded, “but the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.”
One of the most extensive surviving archives of Old Babylonian writing consists of letters sent to Ea-nasir, an eighteenth-century-bc copper merchant from Ur. “You have offered bad ingots to my messenger,” complained one trading partner. “Who am I that you are treating me in this manner?” Another customer appears repeatedly in the archive, each time inquiring about a missing copper shipment. “Do you not know,” he wrote in his third missive, “how tired I am?”
A hand’s primary function, Elias Canetti writes in Crowds and Power, is as “a claw to grasp whole branches” while climbing; both hands partner in “grasping” and “letting go.” This is like trade, he argues: “one hand tenaciously holds on to the object with which it seeks to tempt the stranger” while the other “is stretched out in demand.” Trading, then, offers “profound and universal pleasure” as “a translation into nonphysical terms of one of the oldest movement patterns.”
Before leaving his post as Qi chancellor in 193 bc, Cao Can gave advice to his successor: “If you stir up the markets and empty out the jails, then evil men will have no place to stay and will make trouble for you elsewhere.” A footnote in the English text from translator Burton Watson explains: “It was an assumption among Han officials and intellectuals that most, if not all, men engaged in trade were swindlers.”
A thirteenth-century Song dynasty text about commerce describes dangers faced by pearl divers, who sometimes fell prey to “huge fishes, dragons, and other sea monsters” that would rip open their stomachs or bite off their feet. A pearl was considered most valuable if perfectly round; the test was “that it will not cease rolling about all day when put on a plate.” To avoid heavy export duties, foreign traders sometimes concealed pearls in canes or umbrella handles.