Introduction to the Commodities

This is a truly global resource documenting the trade in 15 commodities around the world from c1500 to the present day. 


We have chosen 15 major commodities:Shipping container lifted by crane


The commodities were chosen after lengthy discussions with numerous scholars because:Painting of ships

  • They represent some of the most widely traded commodities
  • They represent a great variety of commodity types
  • They relate to a broad range of periods and places
  • They often overlap in interesting ways (e.g. coffee, tea, chocolate; or silver, tea, opium, porcelain, cotton)

However, scholars should note that we also provide significant material relating to many other commodities including bacon, beef, cheese, coal, corn, fancy goods, fish, fruits, machinery, rice, silk and wool.  

We have avoided some commodities (such as silk) where excellent websites already exist. These are linked to from our External Links page.



Wherever possible we have tried to provide a broad range of materials for each commodity including:

Key historical texts describing the commodity – many of these have been sourced from the British Library and from the famous Goldsmith’s Library at the University of London.

Material from specialist collections such as the Arent’s Tobacco Collection at New York Public Library, the Joseph Fry’s Archive at Bristol Record Office, and the Braga Brothers Collection at the University of Florida.

Manuscripts describing voyages of discovery, the translocation of crops and the development of mines and plantations.

Strong visual resources including drawings of plants, illustrations of manufacturing processes, and posters.

Original marketing materials and packaging.

Innovative mapping showing how commodities helped to make the world a more interconnected place.



There are accounts of the history of commodities all over the world including:Economic map of Asia


Afghanistan, Antigua, Arabia, Australia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium,

Brazil, Burma, Canada, China, Cuba, Egypt, Fiji, France, Germany, Ghana,

Great Britain, Gold Coast, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy,

Jamaica, Japan, Java, Kenya, Madeira, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mexico, the Netherlands,

New Zealand, Nigeria, Nyasaland, Peru, Portugal, Rhodesia, Russia, South Africa, Sri Lanka,

St Kitts, Sudan, Switzerland, Tanganyika, Trinidad, Turkey, Uganda, the USA, and the Windward Islands.



Example Contents Include:


General Material Applying Across All The Commodities:Liverpool Customs Bill of Entry

Full sets of Liverpool and London Customs Bills of Entry for 1820, 1847, 1901 and 1939, together with related records for Bristol, Clyde and Hull, which show changing patterns in world trade.

19th century Prices Current from Charleston, Chicago, Mobile, Philadelphia and Savannah.

Records documenting the development of Mersey Docks, 1755-1970.

British trade returns, 1673-1807, showing the value and extent of trade in various goods.

Trading records of Abraham Hill, London merchant, 1692-1706.

Trading Records of Nehemiah Champion, London merchant, c1763.

Detailed household accounts of Thomas Coke, Vice Chamberlain, 1692-1725, showing his expenditure on various commodities.

Trading Ledgers and Correspondence of Joseph, Thomas and James Wharton, Philadelphia merchants, showing their trade in a variety of commodities, 1736-1784.

Trading Ledgers and Correspondence of Coates & Reynall, Philadelphia merchants,1729-1767.

Account Books of Various Traders in the Boston Area, 1703-1836, showing patterns of trade and consumption, and details of importation.

Papers of Daniel Helm, 1840-1854, an itinerant tinker in America.

Map Studies of the Mercantile World and illustrations of Economic Geography.


ChocolateMayan vase

Numerous histories and natural histories of chocolate, describing the origins and impact of the drink and the chocolate bar.

Images of an early Mayan Vase, c600-800 AD, depicting the production and consumption of chocolate.

Images of cacao plants, pods and beans.

Images of chocolate making machinery and drinking vessels.

17th century manuscript observations upon the preparation and virtues of chocolate from the papers of Sir Hans Sloane.

Papers of J S Fry & Sons, 1729-1929, who created the first mass market chocolate bar and were the leading chocolate manufacturer in Victorian England.

Papers of James Baker, 1761-1823, showing his success as a general trade and the establishment of a successful chocolate business in America.

First-hand accounts of chocolate and coffee house culture in London, Europe and Turkey.

Accounts of the development of chocolate in Belgium and France.

Attempts to grow chocolate in Trinidad and Sri Lanka.

Instructions on how to run a successful cocoa house, 1877.

Papers of H J Packer & Co depicting machinery for making chocolate and sugar confectionary.

Papers of Kustners Brothers, Bauermeister and Bindler of Dresden depicting machinery for making chocolate.

A detailed report on the structure of the chocolate and confectionary trade in Britain in 1955.

Prospects for the world chocolate market until the year 2005.

Images of chocolate brands.


CoffeeCoffee book

Numerous histories and natural histories of coffee, from its origins in Ethiopia to its spread around Europe and the world.

First-hand accounts of coffee drinking in Arabia in the 17th century.

Records of a French coffee trader, 1773-1778.

Accounts of coffee culture and coffee consumption in Brazil and Java.

Details of the growth of Kenyan coffee plantations.

Accounts of attempts to grow coffee in Sri Lanka and Southern India.

Details of how to run a coffee house and minute books of two famous coffee-house societies.

Accounts of coffee merchandising in the 20th century.

Images of coffee plants, plantations, coffee houses and coffee brands.


CottonWool and cotton warehouse

Numerous histories and natural histories of cotton.

Records of the Company of Adventurers, 1660-1833, regarding trade in cotton, gold, sugar and slaves.

An in-depth look at cotton growing in the US.

Detailed accounts of cotton growing in India.

Reports on cotton growing in Egypt, Sudan and Turkey.

Encouragement of cotton growing in the West Indies.

Analysis of cotton and woollen mills.

Notes on cotton spinning, and the impact of the Cotton Gin.

Papers of the American Cotton Imports Committee, 1917-1939.

Papers of various cotton brokers and records of cotton trade in Charleston and Mobile.

The decline of the cotton industry in the UK.

A 1928 survey of the Indian cotton industry.

Images of cotton fields and of all of the processes involved in the cotton trade.

Images of raw cotton and of cotton products.


FurFur trade illustration

Guides to fur-bearing animals, fur trapping and garment cutting.

Original journals of Pierre Radisson concerning the exploration of Canada, 1683-1684.

Original illustrated journals of James Isham documenting contacts with First Nations people and the development of the Fur Trade, 1742-1743.

Papers of Cornelius Cuyler, American Fur Trader, 1724-1737.

Papers of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Following the advice of our consultant editors, we have concentrated on the early history of the company from 1679 to 1770, although some material for a later date has been included. We cover:

- Correspondence outward – official [from London], 1679-1773

- Correspondence inward – from Fort Albany, Fort Churchill, Moose Factory and York Factory, to London, 1701-1775

- Post Account Books for Fort Albany, Fort Churchill, Moose Factory and York Factory, 1688-1770

- Post Journals for Fort Albany, Fort Churchill, Moose Factory and York Factory,1718-1770

- Fur Trade Importation Books, 1799-1913

- Fur Sales Books, 1736-1781

Papers of the North West Company, 1785-1787.

Material on the Pacific fur trade.

Records of the American and Russian fur trades.

Images of fur garments.


OpiumOpium illustration

A history of the opium trade and its growth in Afghanistan and India.

Papers on the effects of opium and cocaine.

British opium trade in India and China.

The Opium Wars, 1839-1860.

Information on opium dens and plans of an opium factory.

Proceedings of the Royal Commission on Opium, 1893-1894.

Records of International Opium Conferences, 1911-1914.

Papers of the Anti-Opium Association, 1919-1920.

Papers of the League of Nations Narcotics Convention, 1921-1923.

Confidential Print: Opium, 1910-1941.

Post-war attempts to control the opium trade.



Oil rig

A range of documents and contextual resources outlining the history of global oil production, from prehistory to the present day.

Prospectuses, land ownership records and maps produced by an array of oil and coal mining companies in North America.

Detailed records of major oil producers and organisations including Imperial Oil Ltd, Esso, BP, Shell, OPEC and many more.

Journals, annual reports and company records including substantial runs of Oil News and The Imperial Oil Review.

Joseph S. Cullinan Papers, providing an insight into the formation and workings of the Texaco Oil Company.

An energy visualisation, compiled solely from the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy and Historical Datasets.

Oil records of the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices, the Colonial Office, the Empire Marketing Board and others.

Decorated porcelain



Still photographs and 360 images of porcelain figures from a variety of factories.

Catalogues of porcelain collections.

Correspondence between British and Chinese authorities on matters of taxation, duty and finance relating to porcelain imports and exports.

Printed books on the practical aspects of manufacturing porcelain goods.


Silver and GoldClements' Guide to the Klondyke

A history of mining for precious metals and accounts of the discovery of gold and silver in South America.

A history of currency, 1252-1894, and numerous papers regarding the use of gold and silver in coinage.

Historical accounts of the gold and silver mines in Mexico and Peru.

17th century Spanish accounts of the export of gold and silver from the New World.

Notes on the role of silver in the China Trade (linking with opium, tea and porcelain).

Accounts of gold and silver rushes in Canada and the USA.

Description of an Arizona gold mine.

Maps of gold fields in Africa and Canada.


SpicesVasco da Gama

Notes on the history and cultivation of spices.

Ancient and medieval accounts relating to the land of spices.

Accounts of early Portuguese explorers including Vasco da Gama and Magellan.

Accounts of spice markets in India and Arabia.

Accounts of the voyages of Jan Huyghen van Linschoten and the development of the Dutch East India Trade.

1489 world map showing the state of knowledge regarding the East Indies.

1535 geography prepared for Henry VIII, with notes on world trade.

East India Company Minute Books, Vols 1-5, 1599-1620 and 49, 1705-1708, describing their involvement in the spice and other trades.

Accounts of the modern production of spices in the West Indies and Sri Lanka.


SugarTate & Lyle sugar advert

Various histories of sugar and sugar production.

Papers of the Royal Africa Company regarding trade.

Records of sugar production in the West Indies (including original plantation records) and connections between sugar and slavery.

Ashton Court Plantation Records.

Papers of the Dutch West Indies Company, 1699-1770.

Notes on the impact of taxation on sugar.

Records of sugar production in Canada, China, Natal and the USA.

Papers of the Sugar Associations of Lancashire and London, 1882-1977.

Accounts of trade in sugar, molasses, rum and sugar beet.

Records of the International Sugar Conference, 1937.

Papers from the Braga Brothers collection on the manufacture of sugar in Cuba and on the world sugar trade, 1870-1962.

Description of a sugar beet factory.

Posters illustrating sugar production.

A 1956 survey of people's eating habits and knowledge of the caloric content of food.

Papers regarding the manufacture of sugar-based confectionary.

Images of sugar brands and sweets.


TeaFairtrade tea campaign advert

Numerous histories and natural histories of tea.

Pictorial account describing the production of tea in China.

Far East Trade Papers, 1691-1732, describing early tea trade.

Records describing the production of tea in India and Sri Lanka.

Papers on tea production in Japan and on the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

Papers on the effect of taxes on tea consumption.

Records describing the consumption of tea in Britain.

Papers of the Indian Tea Association.

Images of tea growers and tea plantations.

Images of tea brands and of tea apparatus.


TimberTransportation of timber

Detailed histories of the American timber industry and the forests of North America.

Detailed descriptions of the trees of the world and their commercial value.

Accounts of royal forests and timber required for ship building.

Remarks on the Honduras Logwood industry in the 18th century.

Papers of Jesse Partridge, 1770-1791, describing his dealings in the timber trade and the sale of other commodities.

Papers of a Liverpool timber merchant, 1867-1873.

18th century records concerning the timber industry in Guyana.

19th century accounts of Mahogany cultivation in Nicaragua.

UK-USA lumber negotiations, 1929-1938, together with detailed statistics and an analysis of timber requirements.

Timber importers’ guides and notes on the seasoning of wood.

Catalogue of exhibits at the Empire Timber Exhibition, 1920.

Notes on rubber tree cultivation in Burma and Hawaii.

Images of the Canadian Lumber Industry.

Map of Russia and the Baltic showing timber resources.

Notes on the uses of wood in building and available timber sizes.

Descriptions of paper mills.

Report of the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development, 1999.


TobaccoTobacco illustration

Papers of Spanish and Portuguese explorers concerning the discovery of tobacco in the New World.

Early illustrated manuscript accounts of the history of tobacco production in Brazil, Cuba and Mexico.

Papers concerning the development of the tobacco trade in Virginia from the 17th century onwards.

Letters by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson on tobacco.

Papers on the manufacture and consumption of snuff and tobacco.

Material describing the use of taxation to control trade and raise revenue.

Papers describing the early tobacco trade between France and America.

Detailed discussions of the Turkish tobacco industry and taxation.

Government reports on the growth and promotion of Rhodian Cigarettes and other brands of Empire Tobacco, 1935.

Records of tobacco production in East and Central Africa.

Good case study on the choice of cash crops to be grown in Nyasaland.

Reports on the tobacco trade in China and Nigeria.

Papers of W D & H O Wills and Imperial Tobacco, 1855-1997.

Statistics describing the world tobacco trade in 1790,  1870, 1890, 1920, 1932, 1950.

Much material on tobacco consumption in Canada and on British Leaf Tobacco, Canada.

Early reports on health issues relating to tobacco and smoking near children.

Fully searchable version of the five-volume profusely illustrated catalogue of the renowned Arents Collection.

Images of tobacco plantations, tobacco factories and tobacco shops.

Images of tobacco brands, including cigarettes, cigars and pipes.



Advertising and packaging associated with the branding and marketing of flour and early wheat-based products.

Business correspondance, statistics, briefs, reports and marketing materials for Alberta Wheat Pool, Canada's first Photograph of wheatwheat-farmer co-operatives.

360 degree images of packaging for wheat-based products.

Correspondance for Alfred Rawlins Fonds, founder of the Alberta Farmer's Cooperative Elevator Company and active promoter of Canada's grain marketing system.

Early manuscript material and rare printed sources on the early cultivation of wheat and agricultural improvements.

Early grain prices and accounts

Catalogues, trade cards and other visual materials related to the sale and marketing of flour and wheat-based products in America.

Manuscript material related to the early exportation of wheat, corn and grain.

A number of histories concerning the history of the wheat trade in the United States and Europe.

Modern company reports for General Mills.


Wine and SpiritsHarveys wine bottle and glass

A number of histories concerning the history of wine and spirit production.

Histories concerning the production of Madeira, port and sherry.

Historic guides for cellar men and vintners.

Material concerning the impact of taxes on wines and spirits.

Records of the price and consumption of wine and spirits in 18th century America.

Papers of Harveys wine merchants of Bristol, 1894-1983.

Material on the California wine trade.

Modern Government Reports on Drinking & Society.

Images relating to temperance.

Material on Prohibition.

Images of leading brands.