Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

Corporations, wrote Edward Coke in a 1613 legal decision, “have no souls,” for they are “invisible, immortal, and resteth only in intendment and consideration of the law.” A corporate body, Coke argued, can’t “do fealty, for an invisible body cannot be in person, nor can swear.”

Miscellany

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.

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

“Why do you wrong the gods so much?” Greek poet Athenaeus asks a sober party guest in a late second-century work. “You’re no use to the city if you drink water, / because you’re hurting the farmer and the trader; / whereas I increase their income by getting drunk.”

Miscellany

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!”

Miscellany

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.

Miscellany

In an 1846 math textbook from the Free Grammar School of King Edward VI, one exercise considers an exchange of 450 bags of potatoes for cash, 15 chests of oranges, and 185 bushels of carrots; the remainder is nuts. The question is posed: “How many bags of nuts did I receive?”

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

The head female of a paper-wasp nest allows others to occupy space in her home—so long as they help raise her offspring. The labor market is, however, elastic: if other nests nearby have childcare needs, she maintains a lower work requirement from her “helper” wasps.

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

Ottoman humorist Yusuf al-Shirbini of Egypt railed against unfair levies, referring to them as “things being called innovation.” Al-Shirbini quoted scripture: one who brings about “an innovation or provides accommodation for an innovator, upon him be the curse of God.”

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

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?”

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

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.