“Commodities in World History, 1450-1950” A Project of the UCSC Center for World History

“Commodities in World History” is a project of the Center for World History of the University of California, Santa Cruz. It provides websites for classroom and university teachers created by World History graduate students in the UCSC Ph.D. program under the direction of Edmund Burke III, Director of the CWH.

The purpose of the project is to explore the historical connections between producers and consumers of basic commodities and finished goods across the globe and over time. By linking up individual producers and consumers, the project seeks to casts a new light on the standard world historical narrative, with its emphasis on large scale change. Since producers and consumers in most world societies were often women, by studying commodities in world history we also spotlight gender in world history. Finally, the project provides a means of examining the role of individuals in stitching together the fabric of the world economy.

The commodities surveyed here—coffee, beaver fur, whale products, cotton, pepper, indigo, and porcelain —are just a few of those whose exchange marked the emergence of the world market. Prior to the economic linking of the world in the sixteenth century all had limited local or regional markets. As a consequence of the spanning of the globe old modes of consumption were transformed, new markets emerged, and new connections were forged linking men and women across space and time.

Primarily, the commodities in world history project provides new ways for students to envision how the world they inhabit was made and remade, and of the role of producers and consumers in this process of construction. It call upon students (and their teachers) to look at the past from unfamiliar angles, and to think through the logic of how connections developed, changed and were sustained over time. The world economy is far older than we imagine.

Two books inspired us along this path. The first is Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (London: Penguin, 1985) allows us to envision how the lives of eighteenth century slaves on Caribbean sugar plantations were “inter-digitated” with those of British mill workers. The second is Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik(eds.) The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present(London and Armonk NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1999)  which provides a wonderful series of vignettes to stimulate the historical imagination.

We hope that the websites included to the right will inspire teachers and students of world history to develop their own commodity websites, term papers, and other projects. History can be fun!

Coffee in World History” by Chris Brooks

"Cotton in World History" by Chris Brooks 

"Black Pepper: The Spice that Launched a Thousand Ships" by Nathan Kolar

"Indigo" by Kate Long

"Porcelain" by Natale Zappia

"Bananas in World History" by Troy Crowder

Fashionable Felted Fur: the Beaver Hat in 17th Century English Society” by Kelly Feinstein

Kelly Feinstein’s website won second prize in the 2006 Southeast World History Association’s Best Graduate Essay Prize competition.