Making Markets: Histories of Commodity Grading and Trading

20 Nov 2015
9:00 am - 5:00 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type


Organized by:

Caitlin Rosenthal, University of California Berkeley, Department of History

Espen Storli, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Department of Historical Studies

If you are interested in joining us, please register below (free).  

Since 1750, social, political, and technological conditions have dramatically transformed the trading of commodity goods. Through advances in measurement and communication, previously differentiated products have been transformed into fungible commodities that can be traded on paper and at great distances. These products and the markets where they are exchanged have become terrain for speculation, risk management, and even political negotiation. Recent decades have seen a boom in the writing of commodity studies—histories framed around the production, distribution, and consumption of individual products. Since the publication of Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power on the global history of sugar, scholars have written excellent histories on a wide array of goods, from chocolate and coffee to copper, aluminum, and cotton. Notable recent examples include William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, Marcelo Bucheli’s Bananas and Business, Jennifer Anderson’s Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America, Allison Frank’s Oil Empire, and Sven Beckert’s forthcoming The Empire of Cotton.

This workshop on “Making Markets” brings together scholars from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and UC Berkeley working on diverse products in order to examine the moments when markets are made. We see two distinct opportunities to contribute to this already rich area of research. First, by examining the more technical aspects of grading and trading we will focus attention on practices often overlooked by historians. We believe that these practices of measurement and exchange are at the heart of the process of commoditization: it is the mathematics and measurement of grading and trading that turns specialty goods into interchangeable commodities. Though many commodity studies have touched on mechanisms of grading and trading, they have rarely been a central theme. Second, by bringing together scholars studying different places and periods, we will be able to examine these practices in global, comparative perspective. Bringing together scholars working on an array of different goods will help us to explore the topics of grading and trading in international perspective, illuminating the comparative ways market norms and practices have shaped both local economies and global politics.

Image Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USF34-052558-D (b&w film neg.)

If you have questions about the event please contact


9.00 – 9.15 am Welcome and Opening Remarks
Massimo Mazzotti, Center for Science Technology Medicine & Society, University of California, Berkeley
Caitlin Rosenthal, Department of History, University of California, Berkeley
Espen Storli, Department of Historical Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
9.15 – 11.00 Session 1: Commodities
“Between Cartel and Metal Exchange: Aluminum as Commodity 1953-1978”
Hans Otto Frøland, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
My presentation elaborates on the international trade order of aluminum ingots, the staple commodity from which various semi-manufactured, manufactures and aluminum alloys are made. During decades after WWII the international price of pure aluminum ingots was based on Alcan’s price as the reference. The price was communicated in the Metal Bulletin and the major producers fell into line although a cartel agreement no longer existed. One might call it a producer-coordinated price. This regime existed until aluminum was introduced on the London Metal Exchange in 1978. A main challenge to the order was Soviet and Eastern European aluminum supply from 1957, which opened up a free market at a lower price. I will elaborate how the major western producers acted to avoid disturbance of the order.
“The Rise and Fall of Monetized Wampum”
Mark Peterson, University of California, Berkeley
This presentation describes the brief period in the early 17th century when wampum, strung beads made from clam shells by the indigenous peoples of Long Island Sound, and used for diplomatic and mnemonic purposes in ceremonial exchanges, was transformed into money, legal tender for all commercial exchanges including the payment of taxes, by the Massachusetts Bay colony. The presentation explains the reasons for this transformation and the cause of the sudden collapse of this experiment, why wampum “worked” as money, until it didn’t.
“Unruly Informality: Valuing E-Waste Recycling in a Materials Flow Analysis”
Freyja Knapp, University of California, Berkeley
Recycling discarded goods for embedded metals, often referred to as “urban mining,” is being promoted as a way to solve the multiple crises of resource scarcity, overconsumption and waste, and environmental harms from hazardous materials. My presentation will explore how evaluating recycling technologies for efficiency and profit embed values of expertise and unruliness into the calculative results.
**** CANCELLED **** “Fashionable Garments as Commodity: Seventh Avenue and the production of fashions for all (1930s to the 1950s)”
Véronique Pouillard, University of Oslo
“Slavery: Grading Lives in late Antebellum America”
Caitlin Rosenthal, History, University of California, Berkeley
My presentation will examine the quantitative tools planters and slave traders used to value the enslaved and to set targets for output. These grading and pricing schemes attempted to further commodify men and women by rendering them comparable and interchangeable. These efforts toward standardization, were of course, only partially successful. But they parallel grading practices for a wide variety of other more “conventional” commodities.
Chair: Louis Hyman, Cornell University
11.00 – 12.00 Round Table Discussion: Commodities
Chair: Marion Fourcade, University of California, Berkeley
12.00 – 1.00 Lunch Break
1.15 – 2.45 Session 2: Processes
“Government and the Simplification of Everyday Commodities in the 1920s: Lumber Dimensions and Grades”
Colleen Dunlavy, University of Wisconsin-Madison
One of the most under-appreciated aspects of American history is the central role that government has played in the development of American capitalism. The presentation explores the great wave of commodity standardization generated in WWI by the War Industries Board and in the 1920s by the US Department of Commerce’s program to “simplify” everyday commodities, an initiative that produced, among other things, our four standard bed sizes. It focuses on a multi-year initiative to standardize lumber, a case in which forging a nationwide agreement on simplified dimensions also entailed a commodity grading scheme.
“Pricing Commodities: The Shift from Producer Pricing Systems to Exchange Prices in the Non-ferrous Metals Industries in the 1970s”
Espen Storli, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Historically there have been two ways of establishing prices for commodities. For some commodities producer pricing systems have been the norm, while for others exchange prices have been the dominant mechanism. In a producer pricing system the major firms in the industry set prices, while in an exchange system prices are related to price quotations on an organized commodity exchange like the London Metal Exchange (LME). When producers set commodity prices, all purchasers of the good are consumers, when they are sold on exchanges, brokers and speculators also play a part. The aim of this paper is to investigate situations where the pricing mechanisms changed from one system the other. Taking the non-ferrous metals industry in the 1970s as an example, the paper asks how such changes came about. What decides the way a commodity is priced?
“Regulation of Natural Resources in Nineteenth Century Scandinavia”
Pål Sandvik, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
How did the Scandinavian countries regulate their natural resources? Why – and when – were regulations changed? I will explore three main issues: access and ownership, ways of extraction and markets.
“Pyramids for Grain Storage? Commodity Market Interventions in Historical Perspective”
Mats Ingulstad, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
For a government seeking to protect the society against market failures resulting in shortages of natural resources, stockpiling is seemingly among the simplest possible expedients. The formulation of a stockpiling policy for any commodity is nevertheless the result of a great number of political, economical, and technological trade-offs. This contribution discusses the methodology of the US stockpiling program and considers its influence on the grading and trading of commodities in post-war markets.
“The Problem of Value in Business History: Valuation Processes and the Evolution of Firms and Markets”
R. Daniel Wadhwani, University of the Pacific
While the question of the origins of value was central to historical reasoning about markets throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it received little explicit attention from business and economic history as those fields evolved in the decades since World War II. Recent research in business history, however, has at least implicitly begun to reconsider value and valuation as historical processes in markets. Drawing on previous work with Mukti Khaire, this paper seeks to examine how valuation processes shape historical change in firms, categories, and markets. Building on Dewey (1939) and Boltanski and Thevenot (2006), I suggest that the rationales or justifications of value form a kind of moral discourse in markets by articulating the ends a good is designed to serve (valorization processes) and how a good should be evaluated in relationship to those ends (evaluation processes). Processes of consent and dissent about what ought to be valued and how it ought to be evaluated are integral aspects of the organization and change in markets, categories, and firms. I seek to examine this perspective and its relevance to research questions and topics of concern in business history, including the organization of firms and the dynamics of competition.
Chair: Christine Rosen, University of California, Berkeley
3.00 – 3.45 Round Table Discussion: Processes
Chair: Tyler Lange, University of California, Berkeley
4.00 – 5.00 Open Discussion: New and Emerging Work
5.00 – 6.30 Reception

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This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  Peder Sather Center

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