views updated May 18 2018



Activities. In the large port cities of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia merchants were the individuals who imported or exported goods in bulk. Usually they also owned or rented a warehouse. In contrast, shopkeepers sold only a limited amount of goods at retail that is, to ordinary customers rather than to other merchants. In areas outside of the port cities, however, merchant became a generic term that referred to any individual who bought and sold goods. By the time of the Revolution the largest of the mercantile businesses specialized in importing and wholesaling, but most merchants did not confine themselves to particular goods or functions. The colonial market was simply too small and scattered, and

transportation and communication too primitive to allow for the kind of large-scale specialists that emerged in the nineteenth century. Instead most colonial merchants in the port cities made a living by diversifying their activities. They worked as middlemen, coordinating the buying and selling of goods between overseas suppliers and the numerous storekeepers and farmers who lived outside of the main cities. A few merchants also invested their excess capital in manufacturing. Others functioned as bankers during a time when the colonies lacked banks (except for land banks, discussed below). These merchants accepted deposits and honored checks drawn on these funds, just like modern banks do today. Some merchants made additional money by buying shares in ships and cargoes. Retail stores were also largely unspecialized. The older commercial centers had a few specialty stores for books, wine, medicine, tobacco, groceries, and millinery. However, most retail establishments, especially those in rural and frontier areas, were general stores that sold a wide variety of goods. Country storekeepers became important figures in their communities because they were the primary source for goods and information about the outside world. They acted as middlemen, buying the farmers surplus products and extending credit so that farmers could afford to buy supplies. In areas that were remote, small trading posts and a few peddlers supplied the inhabitants with the goods they needed.

She-Merchants. A few women participated in trade. In England some had done so since at least the fourteenth century, and a small number even belonged to guilds. Most colonial businesswomen were widows who had taken over upon the death of their husbands or single women forced to support themselves and perhaps a few dependents. But working for pay was hardly typical for women, and operating as a merchant was even rarer. During the revolutionary era women made up less than 10 percent of all the traders in Boston. At most, only about 2 percent of New Yorks substantial merchants were women. One was Mary Alexander, who was born Mary Spratt in 1693. In 1711 she married merchant Samuel Provoost, and when he died in 1719, Mary took over his dry goods business. In 1721 she married James Alexander, a prominent attorney and member of the New York Council, with whom she had seven children in addition to the three that she had with her first husband. According to James Alexander, Mary did not let child-bearing stop her from continuing her business; in fact she was back at the store the day after giving birth to one of her daughters, selling goods worth some thirty pounds. When James died in 1754, Mary was named the executrix of his estate. Yet no matter how large their businesses might be, female merchants rarely sought political clout. The New York Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1768, had no female members, and none seemed interested in joining.

Nonimportation Agreements. During the Revolution many merchants signed nonimportation agreements to force Britain into rescinding its new regulations. Some


Just prior to the War of Independence tobacco, grown in the Chesapeake and marketed in Europe by British merchants, was the most important of the British continental colonies export crops. These colonies (including Newfoundland, the Bahamas, and Bermuda) also exported substantial amounts of foodstuffs such as bread, flour, fish, rice, and wheat.

Export CommodityValue (£ sterling)Great Britain and Ireland%Southern Europe%W. Indies and Africa%
Enumerated products
Sources: Jacob M, Price, The Transatlantic Economy, in Colonial British America: Essays in the New History of the Early Modern Era, Greene edited by Jack P. and). R. Pole (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), p. 27;
U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the Unite fice, 1975), 2:1,183-1,184. d States, Colonial Times to 1970, 2 volumes (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975), 2:1,183-1,184.
Bread, flour504,5538.440.351.3
Wheat, oats,    
Timber(wood products consisting of):171,737_______________
Masts, yards, etc.*16,63099.900
Pine, etc. boards58,61814.81.184.0
Staves, heading61,61937.78.254.1
Furs, skins*149,326100.000
Whale oil, fins*104,13492.33.14.7
Horses, livestock80,21200100.0
Beef, pork66,03501.498.5
Potash, pearl ash*64,661100.000
Tar, turpentine, etc35,07694.405.7
Other native products122,094   
TOTAL EXPORTS£3,437,715   

joined voluntarily while others succumbed to pressure from patriots. The colonists first used nonimportation to protest the Sugar Act in 1764, and they turned to it again when the Townshend duties were passed in 1767. Although some merchants, especially those in Philadelphia, resisted these agreements, nearly every colony eventually signed them. Nonimportation affected merchants and artisans in opposite ways. Artisans benefited because the ban on British goods enlarged the market for domesticmade products. In contrast, the movement divided merchants. Those who dealt primarily in dry goods from Britain believed that they were being unfairly singled out. They complained that the boycotts left virtually unaffected the merchants who dealt in West Indian molasses and rum. Nonofficial bodies, called committees of inspection and headed by merchants, planters, and artisans, took on the responsibility of enforcing the agreements. Patriotic newspapers did their part by publishing the names of merchants who continued to import from British suppliers. Mobs sometimes exerted pressure by tarring and feathering those who refused to honor the agreements. A few merchants were driven out of town or had their warehouses damaged and looted. In 1769 an angry mob confronted the Boston shopkeepers Betsy and Anne Cuming for continuing to import British goods. I told them we have never antred into eney agreement not to import for it was verry trifling owr Business, Betsy wrote to a friend. The committeemen threatened to publish the sisters names in the newspaper, but Betsy claimed that the publicity only Spirits up our Friends to Purchess from us. The Cumings could not long resist the Patriots pressure, however, and the sisters immigrated to Nova Scotia when the British army evacuated Boston in 1776.

Consumer Boycotts. Because almost everyone was a consumer to some degree, many individuals and groups participated in the patriot cause by resolving not to consume British-made products. Merchants dealing in imported luxury items were hurt by these movements. Women vowed to stop serving tea and refrained from wearing clothes made with fabrics imported from Britain. A widely reprinted appeal that first appeared in 1767 urged them to Wear none but your own country linen / Of economy boast. Let your pride be the most / To show cloaths of your make and spinning. College students also, participated in the boycotts. They abstained from drinking foreign wines, and the Harvard graduating class of 1770 wore black cloth that was manufactured entirely in America. At least one wedding received publicity because, as one newspaper reported, the bride and two of her sisters appeared in very genteel-like gowns, and others of the family in handsome apparel, with sundry silk handkerchiefs, &c., entirely of their own manufacture. A few womens groups even formalized their agreements, to much fanfare. In February 1770 the Boston Evening Post reported that more than three hundred Mistresses of Families had vowed to totally abstain from serving tea, Sickness excepted as an expression of their desire to save the Country from Ruin and Slavery. Another group in North Carolina signed an agreement in October 1774 proclaiming it their duty to do every thing as far as lies in our power to support the publick good. Most of the shunned items were luxuries, not necessities. In addition to tea, wine, and fancy textiles patriotic Americans gave up their coaches and carriages, gold and silver buttons, diamonds, clocks, watches, and jewelry. Poor consumers had fewer opportunities to express their support of the Revolution through nonconsumption. Nevertheless these boycotts allowed participation in public affairs to those, especially women, who had few other channels for expressing their political sentiments.


Mercantilism was a system of political economy wherein the imperial powers strictly regulated their colonies trade. Britain provided the bulk of its colonies imports (mostly manufactured products) and received more than half of their exports (mostly raw and semifinished goods.) The system helped to make Britain a pioneer of the Industrial Revolution and one of the worlds richest nations.

Proportion imported from:
Source: James F, Shepherd and Gary M. Walton, Shipping, Maritime Trade, and the Economic Development of North America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), pp, 160-161.
Great Britain80 percent
West Indies18
Southern Europe2
Proportion exported to:
Great Britain56 percent
West Indies26
Southern Europe18
Africaless than 1

Quartermasters and Commissary Officers. During the War of Independence merchants played the key role in organizing supplies for the Continental Army. They filled nearly all of the posts within the new Congresss quartermaster and commissary departments. Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania was named the armys first quartermaster general in August 1775. In addition to procuring supplies his job included maintaining the roads and bridges traveled by the army, furnishing the wagons and boats they needed, and constructing camps. In 1776 the first chairman of the Secret Committee of Trade, responsible for purchasing foreign goods, was another prominent Philadelphia merchantRobert Morris, who became superintendent of finance in 1781. Supplying the Continental Army was a public enterprise much larger than anything merchants had run before. The deputy quartermaster of Philadelphia, John Mitchell, supervised more than three hundred workers, a number three times the size of the largest businesses of the period. Procuring supplies also proved difficult because Congress made many bureaucratic and tactical blunders. For example, Congress set payment rates for some items below what the market was paying, so the procurement officials had a hard time finding people willing to sell to them. Knowing the armys predicament, speculators and other suppliers tried to force the government to pay the highest prices possible. The officials frequently could not wait for prices to drop but had to buy whatever was available. Merchants John Chaloner and James White, who bought supplies in Philadelphia after the British left the city in 1778, came to regard the speculators there as monsters

in human shape because of the excessive prices they charged. Yet despite their indispensable expertise, merchants working for Congress aroused public resentment because they mixed public obligations with their private business. Because Congress neither supervised them too closely nor required them to separate their public and private functions, merchants frequently used public funds and resources to their advantage. Many found it more convenient, or at least more profitable, to purchase supplies from their own firms or those of their partners: for example, about one-fourth of the Secret Committees expenditures from 1775 to 1777 went to its chairmans firm, Willing and Morris. A scandalized Congress learned in 1779 that while the army had been short of supplies, public wagons had been transporting merchants private goods to New York and New England. The commissions earned by quartermasters1 percent of all monies spentalso infuriated some members of the public, with some justification. Nathanael Greene, who succeeded Thomas Mifflin as quartermaster general in March 1778, admitted that the profit he made from the post is flattering to my fortune. Throughout the war many patriotic merchants performed their duties honorably and well, given the circumstances. However, most Americans distrusted them and believed that the merchants corruption worsened wartime inflation. In 1780, alarmed by the amount of money that was being spent and the general demoralization of both the citizenry and the army, Congress decided to reorganize its departments. Characteristically it turned for help to a merchant, Robert Morris, who himself had frequently been charged with corruption during his stint as chairman of the Secret Committee of Trade.

Beneficiaries of War. During the war some merchants, including New Yorks James Beekman and some loyalist Quakers in Philadelphia, chose to withdraw from business and wait for peaceful times to return. But the war benefited others who took advantage of the peculiar opportunities it offered. The wars disruptions broke the hold of established merchants and allowed new ones to emerge. Traders and storekeepers who operated on only a small scale substantially enlarged their businesses when they became military contractors. Older laws that discouraged competition from smaller traders became unenforceable. For example, New York merchants in 1766 had sponsored legislation prohibiting peddlers, but the law disappeared during the war. Merchants doing business for the government benefited by having access to public resources. The war gave them new contacts in Europe, and some set up branch houses there or entered into partnership with Europeans. In 1781 Congress established the Bank of North America in Philadelphia to help finance the war, a move that led to a boom in that city. Entrepreneurs from Scotland, Ireland, and France immigrated to Philadelphia, and many of the citys resident merchants became wealthy. Baltimore and Alexandria, Virginia, served an area that was relatively untouched by fighting, and many of the regions merchants profited from the wheat and flour trade. New opportunities inspired some to take greater risks. Entrepreneurs traded with the enemy, whose goods fetched high prices among American consumers. Many other entrepreneurs profited handsomely from privateering. Still others speculated on the paper money printed by the states and Congress. In 1781 Maryland merchants sold goods to soldiers in exchange for currency and Western land patents, which the soldiers received as pay from the government. The merchants accepted these at only one-seventh their face value and then resold them later at a higher price. Of course, not all merchants were successful. The war disrupted the economy, causing a number of merchants to go out of business, retire, or see their capital shrink. On average, Philadelphia merchants wealth grew more slowly during the period 1776 to 1789 than in the previous twenty years. Nevertheless the merchants who managed to prosper during the war years were in a good position to capitalize on the huge amount of commercial credit that flowed into America from Europe after the war ended.


Thomas M. Doerflinger, A Vigorous, Spirit of Enterprise: Merchants and Economic Development in Revolutionary Philadelphia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986);

E. James Ferguson, The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 17761790 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961);

Jean P. Jordan, Women Merchants in Colonial New York, New York History, 58 (October 1977): 412439.


views updated May 14 2018


In eighteenth-century parlance, a "merchant" was a wholesaler who traded in foreign markets. Residing in seaport cities, with their businesses and even their homes usually located conveniently close to the wharves, merchants played key roles in the early American economy. Merchants arranged for farm products to move from the countryside to seaports, imported manufactured necessities and luxuries for colonists' consumption, and shipped cargoes of raw materials and produce to Europe, the West Indies, and Africa.

In a precarious business world, merchants had to be flexible and versatile. Besides buying and selling goods, they served as bankers by extending credit and transferring funds, and acted as insurance underwriters. Because communications were slow and unreliable, merchants used agents in foreign ports to purchase and ship their orders of merchandise and to find buyers for their shipments from America. Alternatively, merchants might consign goods to a ship's captain or associate known as a supercargo, who traveled with the shipment and handled its sales. Merchants often hedged their investments by putting funds in business or real estate. Among New York merchants, land was the preferred investment; others owned shares of companies such as iron furnaces. A trader could specialize in dry goods (textiles, notions, and certain items of clothing), meaning that his main contacts were in Great Britain, or in wet goods (rum, molasses, coffee, and other imported groceries), in which case he did business in many ports. Generally, dry goods dealers were the more prosperous of the two groups.

It is customary to refer to a "merchant class," implying a coherent, wealthy group that wielded political and economic clout. But in fact merchants varied widely in their ethnicity, politics, religion, and income. In all the major seaports—Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston—some merchants were among the elite, upper ranks, but by no means were all merchants in that class. Philadelphia traders, for example, included wealthy merchants as well as middling ones whose income was equal to that of a shopkeeper or artisan. (Even struggling merchants enjoyed a higher social status than that of artisans or mechanics, however, because they did not work with their hands.) Most merchants who did reach the upper strata worked their way up rather than relying on inherited wealth; they did not have time for politics while they were active in business. Thomas Hancock, for example, the son of a Puritan minister, began as a bookseller in Boston and made his fortune by supplying British troops during the Seven Years' War. He left a substantial business to his nephew, John Hancock, who succeeded him in the House of Hancock; John, however, found he had more aptitude, interest, and success in politics than he enjoyed as a merchant, and his business suffered as a consequence.

In the Lower South the status of upper-tier merchants was comparable to that of wealthy planters; merchants sometimes owned plantations as well as city businesses, and they intermarried frequently with planter families. Charleston, the fourth-largest (and wealthiest) city in the colonies, had the largest concentration of merchants in the South. By the late colonial period, Charleston merchants conducted 75 percent of the region's overseas trade; they did most of their business with British firms, with whom they formed close business and social ties.

The two principal ports of the middle colonies, New York and Philadelphia, had sizable merchant communities. In Philadelphia before the Revolution, about fifty men (or 10 percent of the total number of merchants) handled half of all the city's shipping. These top Philadelphia merchants were among the wealthiest men in America, and, though not rich by European standards, they lived in aristocratic fashion. Merchants such as Robert Morris and Joshua Fisher resided in three-story, elegantly furnished brick townhouses and frequently built countryseats outside the city.

In New England, Boston was the main port, but it competed for trade with lesser places, including Newburyport, Marblehead, Salem, Newport, Providence, and Portsmouth. Here too, certain families—the Faneuils, Hancocks, and Boylstons of Boston, and the Browns of Providence—rose to prominence, rising above the lesser merchants to form a wealthy, near aristocratic, class. Although he came to relish hobnobbing with the common man, John Hancock lived extravagantly, including riding in a coach with liveried servants.

Some merchants were actively engaged in the cause of liberty, whereas others were lukewarm. Hancock was popular among the working classes in Boston because of his Patriot stance and his association with Samuel Adams. When Hancock was placed under arrest for smuggling (evading duties was everyday practice for Boston shippers), a mob dragged a British custom boat through the streets, then burned it in protest. South Carolina merchant Christopher Gadsden was so ardent for the rebellion that he was known as a Southern Samuel Adams. Prominent Rhode Island merchant John Brown was among the locals who wounded the captain of the British customs boat Gaspée, then set it on fire in 1772. In Newburyport, Massachusetts, merchants supported the radical movement wholeheartedly, perhaps because they had fewer ties to Britain than merchants in other cities. In some cases merchants may have supported the periodic boycotts of British imports for economic reasons; it is possible that boycotts gave merchants a chance to unload the accumulation of dry goods that the British merchants had dumped on the American market, or that some merchants saw nonimportation as a way to drive competitors out of business.

In other instances merchants were cautious and conservative when it came to rebellion. Like their more zealous counterparts, they, too, worried about British infringement on American rights, and some were even willing to sacrifice for the cause. However, there was no sustained support among all merchants for nonimportation. In Philadelphia and New York, traders were reluctant to jeopardize business by cutting ties with British firms. Sometimes merchants supported boycotts under duress; in 1773 Philadelphia merchants James Abel and Henry Drinker anticipated a healthy profit when they agreed to sell tea for the British West India Company. They had to give up the commission when visited by a "tar and feather committee" enforcing the boycott against the Tea Act. Even in Boston, where there were major protests, including the Boston Tea Party, merchants were not united. The historian John Tyler found that, of 392 Boston merchants whose sentiments can be determined, 42 percent were Patriots and 39 percent were Loyalists. Loyalists tended to be Anglican dry goods traders with ties to British exporters, while most Patriots were Congregationalists who dealt in a variety of goods.

Sectional interests also played a role. When the Continental Congress decided to ban exports to Great Britain in response to the Coercive Acts, South Carolina insisted and Congress acquiesced that it continue exporting rice, a clear indication that neither all colonies nor all merchants were united in a course of action. The rice trade aside, Congress warned merchants that violators of the sanctions would be considered "enemies of American liberty." Because colonists were increasingly directing their resentment not only toward what they saw as British oppressors, but also at merchants and others in positions of power and wealth at home, mob rule continued to keep reluctant merchants in compliance.

Merchants may have had good reason to question rebellion, considering that after the war the nation plunged into a depression that lasted until the 1790s. Although they sought new markets in distant places, merchants were hampered by Britain's punitive trade restrictions and by lack of imperial protection. British merchants also dumped goods on the American market and then demanded payment in scarce specie (money in coin) rather than paper money, so that American merchants, in turn, pressed customers for payment and caused resentment among citizens already affected by the depression and inspired by the rhetoric of liberty. Moreover, wealthy creditors, including some merchants, pressed Congress to repay war loans and bonds, with interest and in specie, while ordinary citizens agitated for paper money and tax relief. When tensions between upper-class creditors and working- and middle-class debtors erupted in Shays's Rebellion in Massachusetts, merchants helped finance the militia that quelled it. Wealthier merchants and businessmen merchants were thus clearly aligned with the educated elites who believed that too much government in the hands of ordinary people was dangerous. They were also among the nationalists who backed the movement to craft a new Constitution that would strengthen the federal government and allow it to regulate trade, impose taxes, and raise a standing army, as well as rein in state and individual powers.

Throughout the nineteenth century northern merchants attempted to reduce the nation's reliance on imports by investing in factories. Indeed, by the antebellum era New England had become the nation's most industrialized region. New York and Baltimore continued to grow, while Philadelphia declined in relation to the other ports. By 1800 Baltimore merchants were siphoning off trade from the Eastern Shore and western Pennsylvania and leading the nation in flour exports. New York trade surpassed that of Philadelphia in the early nineteenth century, and Philadelphia merchants made the transition from being leaders of American commerce to holding important positions in banking, manufacturing, mining, and coastal trade. Southern planters and businessmen, rather than expand into manufacturing, continued to put their emphasis on agriculture.

See alsoBoston; Boston Tea Party; Charleston; Constitutional Law; Consumerism and Consumption; Currency and Coinage; Government and the Economy; Industrial Revolution; Insurance; Manufacturing; Material Culture; New York City; Philadelphia; Plantation, The; Shays's Rebellion; Shipping Industry; Taxation, Public Finance, and Public Debt; Tea Act; Wealth; Wealth Distribution .


Baxter, W. T. The House of Hancock: Business in Boston, 1724–1775. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965.

Dalzell, Robert F., Jr. Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987; New York: Norton, 1993.

Doerflinger, Thomas M. A Vigorous Spirit of Enterprise: Merchants and Economic Development in Revolutionary Philadelphia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Jensen, Arthur L. The Maritime Commerce of Colonial Philadelphia. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin for the Department of History, University of Wisconsin, 1963.

Labaree, Benjamin W. Patriots and Partisans: The Merchants of Newburyport, 1764–1815. New York: Norton, 1975.

Matson, Cathy. Merchants and Empire: Trading in Colonial New York. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Nash, Gary B. The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Papenfuse, Edward C. In Pursuit of Profit: The Annapolis Merchants in the Era of the American Revolution, 1763–1805. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

Schlesinger, Arthur M. The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution, 1763–1776. 1918. New York: Atheneum, 1968.

Tolles, Frederick Barnes. Meeting House and Counting House: The Quaker Merchants of Colonial Philadelphia, 1682–1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1948.

Tooker, Elva. Nathan Trotter, Philadelphia Merchant, 1787–1853. Harvard Studies in Business History 19. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955; New York: Arno Press, 1972.

Tyler, John W. Smugglers and Patriots: Boston Merchants and the Advent of the American Revolution. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986.

Diane Wenger


views updated May 29 2018



The Meluhhan Presence. References to Meluhha in texts dating to the third millennium b.c.e. are thought to indicate the region occupied by the Harappan civilization in the Indus Valley of modern Pakistan and India. Meluhha was said to be the source for exotic hardwoods, copper, tin, silver, and carnelian. The presence of certain distinctive objects among the grave goods found in the Royal Tombs at Ur (circa 2500 b.c.e.) is seen as a clear indication of commercial and/or diplomatic contacts between southern Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. These objects include containers and vessels made from mollusk shells that are indigenous to the Arabian Sea and necklaces and belts strung with long biconical and “etched” carnelian beads. It has even been suggested that the bodies of several women found in the Great Death Pit at Ur were in fact those of Harappan ladies who accompanied the deceased, who is thought to be king Mesanepada, founder of the First Dynasty of Ur (circa 2600 b.c.e.), into the next world. Their headdresses with gold flowers and their necklaces with pendant gold leaves are not unlike the headdresses and necklaces depicted on Harappan figurines. Evidence from the last three centuries of the third millennium b.c.e. suggests the presence of Harappan merchants from Meluhha within Mesopotamia. Whether they were private businessmen or agents of some state entity in the Indus Valley is unknown. An inscription of Sargon of Akkad (circa 2334 - circa 2279 b.c.e.) refers to Meluhhan ships tied up at the quay of the capital city, Agade (Akkad). An inscribed Akkadian-period cylinder seal of unknown provenance identifies its owner as an interpreter of Meluhhan speech, while a locally made Harappan-like stamp seal from Ur bears a partially legible cuneiform inscription that might be the name or title of its presumed Meluhhan owner. Following the collapse of the Akkadian Empire, circa 2193 b.c.e., Meluhhan ships were still apparently calling on Mesopotamian ports. An inscription of Gudea, ruler of Lagash (circa 2100 b.c.e.), states that Meluhhan merchants brought wood and other raw materials directly to him. Archival texts dated in the reigns of the Ur III kings Shulgi (circa 2094 - circa 2047 b.c.e.), Amar-Suena (circa 2046 - circa 2038 b.c.e.), and Shu-Sin (circa 2037 -circa 2029 b.c.e.) suggest the existence of a village of by-then-long-acculturated Meluhhan colonists in the vicinity of Lagash. Early in the second millennium b.c.e., following the collapse of Indus Valley urban culture, the period of direct contact between the Indus Valley and lower Mesopotamia came to an end.

Assyrian Merchantmen. Discoveries at the site of the ancient city of Kanesh, modern Kültepe, in central Anatolia yielded the first extensive evidence of Mesopotamian merchants operating on their own behalf for the principal purpose of making a monetary profit. There, some 1,750 cuneiform tablets were found in private houses in the karum (literally: “the harbor”), the walled lower city. In all, some seventy archives—each containing from a few dozen to more than a thousand cuneiform tablets written in an archaic dialect of Assyrian—were found, most as they had been left at the destruction of the city circa 1830 b.c.e., with tablets in jars, baskets, wooden boxes, on shelves along walls, or stacked on reed matting. The tablets were archival texts, letters, and legal documents providing evidence of the business activities of the city’s resident traders, who were predominantly foreigners from the city of Ashur on the Tigris River. From circa 1910 to circa 1830 b.c.e., and again from circa 1810 to circa 1740

B.C.E., caravans of donkeys were loaded at Ashur with woolen textiles and tin and transported to Kanesh, where the goods as well as the donkeys were exchanged for currency—silver and gold bullion. From Kanesh the goods were further distributed across Anatolia. The tin and, for the most part, the textiles were imports into Assyria—the tin presumably from the east and the textiles from Babylonia to the south. Some textiles were also produced locally at Ashur specifically for the Anatolian trade. One merchant, Puzur-Ashur, wrote a letter to his wife, Waqqurtum, giving instructions regarding the kind and quantities of textiles he needed for his business dealings abroad:

(Concerning) the fine cloth that you sent me, you must make cloth like that and send it to me. … Have one side of the cloth combed, but not shaved smooth: it should be close-textured. Compared to the textiles you sent me earlier, you must work in one pound of wool more per piece of cloth, but they must still be fine! The other side (of the cloth) must be just lightly combed: if it still looks hairy, it will have to be closeshaved, like kutanu-cloth (a common textile). As for the abarne-cloth which you sent me, you must not send me that sort of thing again. If you do want to do so, then make it the way I used to wear it. But if you don’t want to make fine textiles—as I have heard it they can be bought in quantity over there (i.e., where you are); buy (them) and send them to me. One finished (piece of) cloth, when you make it, should be nine ells long and eight ells wide (4.5 by 4 m). (Veenhof, 1972)

Away on Business. The Assyrian merchants made two round trips a year via an overland route that probably covered on the order of 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) each way and took some five to six weeks to complete. Husbands left their wives at home and accompanied their caravans. Often these men settled in the emporia (trading centers) and corresponded with their wives, who were left behind. Some husbands paid scant attention to the needs of their wives and families back in Ashur. Some even took second wives and raised second families in Anatolia; others never returned home until their old age, leaving their wives lonely, ill, and at times, destitute. One such wife, Taram-Kubi, wrote her husband about her desperate situation and what she perceived to be his selfishness:

You wrote to me as follows: “Keep the bracelets and rings that you have; they will be needed to buy you food.” It is true that you send me half a pound of gold through Ili-bani, but where are the bracelets that you have left behind? When you left, you didn’t leave me one shekel of silver. You cleaned out the house and took everything with you.

Since you left, a terrible famine has hit the city of Ashur. You did not leave me one liter of barley. I need to keep on buying barley for our food. … Where is the extravagance that you keep on writing about? We have nothing to eat. Do you think we can afford indulgence? Everything I had available I scraped together and sent to you. Now I live in an empty house and the seasons are changing. Make sure that you send me the value of my textiles in silver so that I can at least buy ten measures of barley. (Michel; translated by Van De Mieroop)

Business and the Local Authorities. The Assyrian trade with Anatolia was quite profitable. Tin was sold in Kanesh at twice its purchase price in Ashur, and fine textiles were marked up as much as 300 percent. The local Anatolian ruler took a percentage of each donkey load as a tax payment for himself and had the right of first refusal to purchase another 10 percent of the textiles at a reasonable price. Nonetheless, the Assyrian merchants typically realized net profit margins of up to 100 percent per year. The Assyrians lived in their own commercial quarter, the karum; and the local ruler granted them the right to their own administrative and judicial authorities. The Assyrian merchants promised to abide by their business relationship with the local ruler and not attempt to avoid payment of taxes. Nevertheless, it appears that they engaged in smuggling in an effort to evade such taxes. In one letter three merchants warned an associate:

As the orders of the karum (the trading authorities) are firm, your smuggling that you wrote about is not feasible, so we shall not write you about your smuggling. Make up your own mind! Do not rely on colleagues! Beware! (Larsen, 1988)


Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, “The Indus Civilization,” in Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus, edited by Joan Aruz with Ronald Wallenfels (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003), pp. 377-381.

Mogens Trolle Larsen, The Old Assyrian City-State and Its Colonies (Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1976).

Larsen, “Old Assyrian Texts,” in Tablets, Cones, and Bricks of the Third and Second Millennia B.C., edited by Ira Spar, volume 1 of Cuneiform Texts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988), pp. 92-143.

Cécile Michel, Correspondance des marchands de Kanish au début du IIe millénaire avant J.-C., Littératures anciennes du Proche-Orient, 19 (Paris: Cerf, 2001).

Simo Parpola, Asko Parpola, and Robert H. Brunswig Jr., “The Meluhha Village: Evidence of Acculturation of Harappan Traders in Late Third Millennium Mesopotamia,” Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient, 20 (1977): 129-165.

D. T. Potts, “Distant Shores: Near Eastern Trade with South Asia and Northern Africa,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribners, 1995), III: 1451-1463.

Marc Van de Mieroop, A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000-323 B.C. (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004).

Klaas R. Veenhof, Aspects of Old Assyrian Trade and its Terminology, Studia et Documenta, 10 (Leiden: Brill, 1972).

Veenhof, “Kanesh: An Assyrian Colony in Anatolia,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribners, 1995), II: 859-871.


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Kievan Russia supplied raw materials of the forestfurs, honey, wax, and slavesto the Byzantine Empire. This trade had a primarily military character, as the grand prince and his retinue extorted forest products from Russian and Finnish tribes and transported them through hostile territory via the Dnieper River and the Black Sea. In the self-governing republic of Novgorod, wealthy merchants shared power with the landowning elite. Novgorod exported impressive amounts of furs, fish, and other raw materials with the aid of the German Hansa, which maintained a permanent settlement in Novgorodthe Peterhofas it did on Wisby Island and in London and Bergen.

Grand Prince Ivan III of Muscovy extinguished Novgorod's autonomy and expelled the Germans. Under the Muscovite autocracy, prominent merchants acted as the tsar's agents in exploiting his monopoly rights over commerce in high-value goods such as vodka and salt. The merchant estate (soslovie ) emerged as a separate social stratum in the Law Code (Ulozhenie ) of 1649, with the exclusive right to engage in handicrafts and commerce in cities.

Peter I's campaign to build an industrial complex to supply his army and navy opened up new opportunities for Russian merchants, but his government maintained the merchants' traditional obligations to provide fiscal and administrative services to the state without remuneration. From the early eighteenth century to the end of the imperial period, the merchant estate included not only wholesale and retail traders but also persons whose membership in a merchant guild entitled them to perform other economic functions as well, such as mining, manufacturing, shipping, and banking.

Various liabilities imposed by the state, including a ban on serf ownership by merchants and the abolition of their previous monopoly over trade and industry, kept the merchant estate small and weak during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Elements of a genuine bourgeoisie did not emerge until the early twentieth century.

Ethnic diversity contributed to the lack of unity within the merchant estate. Each major city saw the emergence of a distinctive merchant culture, whether mostly European (German and English) in St. Petersburg; German in the Baltic seaports of Riga and Reval; Polish and Jewish in Warsaw and Kiev; Italian, Greek, and Jewish in Odessa; or Armenian in the Caucasus region, to name a few examples. Moreover, importers in port cities generally favored free trade, while manufacturers in the Central Industrial Region, around Moscow, demanded high import tariffs to protect their factories from European competition. These economic conflicts reinforced hostilities based on ethnic differences. The Moscow merchant elite remained xenophobic and antiliberal until the Revolution of 1905.

The many negative stereotypes of merchants in Russian literature reflected the contemptuous attitudes of the gentry, bureaucracy, intelligentsia, and peasantry toward commercial and industrial activity. The weakness of the Russian middle class constituted an important element in the collapse of the liberal movement and the victory of the Bolshevik party in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

See also: capitalism; economy, tsarist; foreigntrade; guilds


Freeze, Gregory L. (1986). "The Soslovie (Estate) Paradigm and Russian Social History." American Historical Review 91:1136.

Owen, Thomas C. (1981). Capitalism and Politics in Russia: A Social History of the Moscow Merchants, 1855-1905. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Owen, Thomas C. (1991). "Impediments to a Bourgeois Consciousness in Russia, 18801905: The Estate Structure, Ethnic Diversity, and Economic Regionalism." In Between Tsar and People: Educated Society and the Quest for Public Identity in Late Imperial Russia, ed. Edith W. Clowes, Samuel D. Kassow, and James L. West. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rieber, Alfred J. (1982). Merchants and Entrepreneurs in Imperial Russia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Thomas C. Owen