Short Teaching Module: A Human History of Commodities

Jordan Smith, Widener University
Handwritten black ink recipe written in a paragraph format.


A commodity is a material that can be bought and sold- and it doesn't automatically have to be a raw agricultural good. Historians have focused on commodities as an insight into past economies, as well as the connections between places and goods via trade in order to better understand capitalism as well as the Columbian exchange. These events were highly influenced by trade, and included not only the commodification of agricultural products, but also of labor and the human body. This teaching module discusses a variety of historical commodities in a scavenger-hunt like format, designed at engaging students. It aims to start the conversation on how cultural value has been assigned to certain goods, and how that history has affected major events in the past.


Whenever I teach a unit or a course on the history of commodities, I like to begin with a painting. John Greenwood’s “Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam” from the 1750s is one of my favorites. I ask students what common trade goods—or commodities—they see. We start with the obvious ones: bottles of wine, bowls of rum punch, tobacco, clothes died with cochineal and indigo, serving ware, and cones of sugar. We also talk about how sea captains and merchants like those depicted in this painting sought to buy and sell African-descended people in an effort to reduce human beings to tradeable goods. Then we talk about the context of the scene—why were a bunch of Rhode Island merchants in a Dutch colony in South America anyways? The students are interested to learn that these men were trading timber, grains, and horses for molasses, sugar, and, sometimes, people.

This exercise is meant as more than a scavenger hunt. I hope to impress on students the wide array of things being made, traded, and sold in the early modern Atlantic world. This “world of goods” united many far-flung places, even some beyond the Atlantic basin. To focus on one example, rum punch entailed mixing rum, citrus, and sugar from the Americas with spices from the Pacific basin in a porcelain bowl made in—or at least inspired by—China. These commodities introduced desirable tastes and experiences, psychoactive effects, and new forms of sustenance to people encountering them. To analyze an image full of these goods is to visualize the effects of globalization.

As commodity studies have blossomed over the past three decades, historians have been drawn to the explanatory power of books that focus on a thing rather than a person, event, or place as their constant. The promise of such an approach is that we can understand otherwise hidden connections between distant places and people, and we can look beyond political borders to appreciate how goods circulated. For instance, in Vermeer’s Hat, Timothy Brook follows the global trajectories of the beaver pelt hats, pottery, tobacco, silver, and people populating the Dutch Master’s paintings. Alternatively, Jennifer Anderson’s Mahogany considers how highly-processed wood initially culled from the greater Caribbean became a sign of refinement in North America and Europe. These scholars seek to reinscribe global histories of production and trade into paintings or pieces of furniture that otherwise lack crucial contexts.

Commodity histories have been particularly effective means to study two monumental historical developments that bookend the early modern period: the Columbian exchange and the rise of capitalist production. Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas ushered in an era of sustained interaction between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Plants, animals, and pathogens wiped out large swaths of humans and biota. The Columbian exchange also introduced agricultural products to new regions. Judith Carney’s work chronicles how an array of foodstuffs—and knowledge of their production and use—travelled with enslaved Africans to the Americas. Such goods were equally likely to travel from the so-called “New World” to the “Old.” In Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures, Marcy Norton recounts how Indigenous Americans passed on their habits of consuming tobacco and chocolate to European colonizers. Over time, those commodities infiltrated European society where the ways they were used and their meanings evolved. These sorts of commodity histories memorably demonstrate how the changes wrought by seaborne exploration and colonization created new worlds for all people.

Recently, histories of capitalism have also taken a commodity-centered approach. In Merchants of Medicine, Zachary Dorner shows how individuals involved in the British Empire’s pharmaceutical trade in the eighteenth century relied on imperialism and new forms of production to increase their profits despite high human costs. Likewise, Erika Rappaport’s A Thirst for Empire traces tea’s transition from a colonial afterthought to an item whose cultivation, trade, and consumption by European and non-European people fundamentally shaped the British Empire. Commodity histories aimed at examining the rise of capitalism often analyze the intertwined processes of state power, the creation of private wealth, and colonial exploitation. They unquestionably demonstrate that capitalism did not simply emerge in the coal mines of Durham and the textile mills of Lancashire—it was instead a global story.

Despite our best efforts, focusing on commodities can lead to overly triumphant stories of how the past led to the present. This risk is most clearly visible in expansive histories claiming that a single item “made” the modern world. Such narratives often overlook the human and environmental costs that accompanied production and consumption. For teachers and writers alike, the greatest antidote to this form of story-telling is to focus on the people affected by commodities. In this regard, I think that my own research can be instructive. I am writing a book on the invention and production of rum in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. When we think of rum, we often reminisce about tropical beverages possibly enjoyed on a Caribbean vacation. If we instead think about the knowers, makers, and drinkers of rum in the colonial era, a more textured picture emerges. We can learn about enslaved Native and African men and women whose coerced work on Caribbean plantations brought them to the sites where rum was invented. The forceful expropriation of their physical and intellectual work enhanced the profits of plantation and distillery owners—profits that these owners reinvested in slavery and colonial expansion. Distillers and merchants coordinated to send this liquid commodity to many different parts of the Atlantic world. Some of it was certainly enjoyed as rum punch in taverns like the one painted by John Greenwood, but rum also factored prominently into the transatlantic slave trade, exchanges between Native people and Europeans in North America, and new dialogues about drunkenness that fundamentally reshaped the Atlantic world.

Telling human-centered histories of commodities reminds us all that commodities themselves did not make human history. A good itself could not improve qualities of life, enslave and dispossess millions, or transform tastes. Instead it was the geographically-dispersed inventors, producers, consumers, and merchants (including those carousing in Suriname) who negotiated how commodities should be made, the value that they held, and the cultural meanings of their use. We can all learn so much by pursuing their stories.

Primary Sources

Ginger bread recipe

Handwritten black ink recipe written in a paragraph format.
This late-seventeenth century recipe for gingerbread shows how colonization in the Atlantic world changed what men and women in England would have eaten. The recipe includes ginger and sugar. While both of these commodities were known by Europeans prior to Columbus’s journeys to the New World, they were often grown on Caribbean plantations for export to Europe. In turn, increasing supply of these and other crops altered the labor performed in kitchens by English housekeepers and revolutionized the diets of all Britons. Students can browse other early modern cookbooks digitized by the Folger Shakespeare Library in order to uncover their own histories of the global trade in foodstuffs. This source is a part of the A Human History of Commodities teaching module.

The World: Map of N. & S. America

Old color map of north and south America, with a distorted view of North America.
Matthaeus Seutter was an acclaimed German mapmaker in the early eighteenth century. He published maps that introduced the geography of the Americas to many people who would never set foot on the continents themselves. The drawings on the upper left and lower left of this map represent many of the things that Seutter—and other Europeans—prized in the New World. Through these images, students can see where some of the colonizers’ priorities laid: precious metals, sugar, tobacco, and dyewoods mined, grown, or processed by Indigenous American and African people. Additionally, the parts of the map that are less accurate—such as the Great Lakes or California—invite interesting conversations about the incomplete nature of European geographic knowledge. The John Carter Brown Library’s collection of maps is also easily navigable online, making it possible for students to find other examples of mapmakers depicting commodity production on maps of recently explored lands. This source is a part of the A Human History of Commodities teaching module.

Negro Slavery Described by a Negro

Ashton Warner lived in the British Caribbean colony of Saint Vincent in the early 1800s. He was raised free before being re-enslaved at the age of ten. In this passage, he describes his experience laboring on a sugar plantation. Although Warner was not forced to labor in the cane fields, he describes his horror at the prospect that he might need to complete that work. And in greater detail than most other slave narratives, he describes the toll that harvesting and refining sugar took on male and female field hands. Warner’s account, as well as other narratives available through Documenting the American South, allow historians to understand slavery and commodity production through the words of enslaved people themselves. This source is a part of the A Human History of Commodities teaching module.


Jordan Smith is an Assistant Professor of History at Widener University in Chester, PA. He teaches courses in early American, Atlantic, and Public History. Jordan is currently working on a book that examines the emergence of rum as a quintessentially modern commodity in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic World.

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: A Human History of Commodities," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-human-history-commodities [accessed January 27, 2023]