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.
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.”
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 Byzantine general of “ignoble descent” oversaw the building of Petra, on the Colchian coast, and set up an import monopoly. “They are robbing us of all our gold as well as of the necessities of life, using the fair name of trade,” locals complained, according to Procopius. “There has been set over us as ruler a huckster who has made our destitution a kind of business.”
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?”
When Arctic traveler Vilhjalmur Stefansson traded with the Inuit of Victoria Island in 1911, he found the metal of their knives to be of curious provenance: Inuit to the east had bought guns from the Hudson Bay Company and traded them westward; the firearms were then traded farther west, eventually reaching the Inuit he’d met—who, having no use for guns, had beat the metal barrels into knife blades.
For Kid Nation, a reality show that aired in 2007, forty children went to stay in a New Mexico ghost town for forty days. They lived as laborers, cooks, merchants, or an upper class; many worked fourteen-hour days to earn buffalo nickels to spend on root beer. In the final episode, some participants raided the dry goods store. “It’s free,” said one kid, his mouth stuffed with gummy bears. Another raider was heard announcing, “There is a god.”
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 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.”
A growing market for ejiao—a gelatin made from donkey hide believed by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine to increase libido and slow aging—has led to a global trade of millions of donkey skins each year. Asses are often kidnapped from rural African villages, where their labor is valued highly, then taken to markets and slaughtered for export. “The donkeys,” said a sanctuary manager while visiting a market in Tanzania, “are very stressed.”