Hot Commodities: Salt, Cod, Paper, and Booze

(Credit: Pixabay, CC0)

Writing histories of commodities has become incredibly popular within the historical profession. Mark Kurlansky is perhaps the best-known author of these types of histories—Salt, Cod, and Paper being three of his biggest successes. For academics, commodities are inextricably tied to studies of capitalism, trade, and transnationalism. But for pop history authors, the appeal lies in the money. These books can make their writers a pretty penny, but why?

Bruce Robbins, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, suggests that the general public’s interest in commodity studies lies in the exotic origins of many modern products. He writes: “It adds value to remind a European smoker, however distant from religious observance, that Mayans considered tobacco ‘to be not only a form of pleasure, but also a ritual of immense significance.’” [1]
(Credit: W.W. Norton & Company)

Certainly, there are those who will score cocktail party conversation points when recounting the ancient origins of a given commodity du jure, but perhaps the appeal for most is rooted more in sincere curiosity about why we buy what we buy. Many commodities have long histories that span borders, cultures and civilizations. To acquire and use these items is to participate in a fundamental human experience, which, in seemingly small but important ways, bind us across space and time.

My own research is focused on craft beer and, more generally, alcohol. Beer is a well-loved commodity with a heady history that spans back thousands of years. Beer recipes that date back thousands of years in regions from Mesopotamia to China have been discovered and preserved. Some adventurous brewers have even successfully replicated the recipes. [2] To the ancient Sumerians, beer was an object of worship, represented by Ninkasi, the goddess of beer. Hop heads today will recognize Ninkasi from the Eugene, Oregon-based craft brewery that bears her name.

The course of my research led me to Lisa McGirr's The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), in which the Harvard history professor makes fascinating connections between prohibition and the intersections of race, class, and gender.

Click here for a review, and if that's not enough to slake your thirst, pick up a copy and sip a frosty beverage while you flip through this intoxicating commodity history.

About the Author: J.T. Menard is a second-year master’s student in History at WSU with a focus on public history. A native of Yakima, he writes occasional book reviews for his hometown newspaper, the Yakima Herald, where his review of The War on Alcohol was originally published May 2, 2018.

[1]Bruce Robbins, "Commodity Histories." PMLA 120, no. 2 (2005): 45, accessed September 5, 2018,; Ian Gately, Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization, (New York: Grove, 2001), 11.
[2]Madeline K. Sophia, “5,000-Year-Old Chinese Beer Recipe Revealed,” National Public Radio, May 23, 2016.


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