Economic History Research Paper Topics

This page lists economic history research paper topics and ideas and provides links to example papers on history of organizations and institutions, systems and patterns, trade goods and products.

Economic History Research Paper TopicsOrganizations and Institutions

British East India Company

Stockholders formed the English East India Company (later the British East India Company) to import Asian goods by sea. With a monopoly enforced by the British crown, the company governed its trading posts, waged wars, and even conquered India, in order to protect its interests. A massive revolt in India caused the British government to take control of the country and dissolve the company in 1859. See British East India Company Research Paper.

Multinational Corporations

Trading companies in the 1600s, precursors to multinational corporations (MNCs), acquired and controlled foreign assets in order to reduce costs and risks and to gain advantage over their competitors. Modern MNCs that invest directly in foreign markets benefit from advances in research and development, from privileged access to capital and finance in the home country, and from the ability to manage organizational, marketing, and branding techniques. See Multinational Corporations Research Paper.

Dutch East India Company

The Dutch East India Company (VOC), founded in 1602, consisted of sixty companies aimed at monopolizing the spice trade, expanding Dutch colonial influence, and reducing competition from other commercial powers. The VOC did not merely monopolize world trade; it acted as the sole representative of Dutch political power in the East Indies for nearly two hundred years. See Dutch East India Company Research Paper.


Artisans, merchants, and other workers formed guild associations throughout history as a way to standardize practices in their professions. As their legal powers grew, guilds regulated production, fixed rules for apprenticeship, restrained competition, and countered foreign competition with precise ordinances. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, with growing economic deregulation, guilds were considered an obstacle to progress and were abolished worldwide. See Guilds Research Paper.

Hanseatic League

In the mid-twelfth century, without navies to protect cargoes or international agencies to regulate tariffs, northern German cities formed the Hanseatic League in an effort to ensure that ports were safely maintained and tariff agreements set. The league controlled increasingly wide trading routes but declined in the early sixteenth century with the disappearance of local herring fisheries and the growth of English and Dutch merchant marines. See Hanseatic League Research Paper.

Hong Merchants

Because Chinese officials in the Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12) refused to have direct dealings with European and U.S. merchants beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, the government licensed hong merchants to serve as intermediaries at Guangzhou (Canton), the only Chinese port open to foreign trade from 1759 to 1842. Many became prominent and wealthy until Britain’s 1842 victory over the Chinese in the First Opium War. See Hong Merchants Research Paper.

Hudson’s Bay Company

The Hudson’s Bay Company was a significant British trading company, leading in fur trade, exploring and developing the Canadian wilderness, and holding the biggest territory of any company in the history of the world from its foundation in 1670 till the forced sale of its landholdings in 1869. Since the land sales it has remained a significant actor in Canadian business till present times. See Hudson’s Bay Company Research Paper.

Iberian Trading Companies

The first great European merchant empires to establish global commercial networks during the early modern era were those of Spain and Portugal, on the Iberian Peninsula, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But their trading companies appeared later than, and in response to, those of their European rivals, especially the Dutch and the English. See Iberian Trading Companies Research Paper.

Systems and Patterns


The practice of swapping one good or service directly for another, without the use of money as an exchange medium, is known as barter. Because the relative value of one good against another varies with need, availability, and social context, barter transactions are not inherently simple, but often involve complex social relations. See Barter Research Paper.


Capitalism is the exchange—for private gain and at market-set prices—of labor, land, and goods. Capitalism is seen in all periods of history, in both the East and West, but was limited by large subsistence and religious/state sectors for most of history, and by communist regimes, with state control of the economy, in the past century. Capitalism has brought great material progress, but also periodic crises and inequality. See Capitalism Research Paper.

Columbian Exchange

The early exchanges of life forms between Europe and America, which began in earnest with the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492, included disease germs, weeds, and vermin as well as medicines, crops, and domesticated animals. The effects were far-reaching for species that had developed in relative isolation on different continents of the Old and New Worlds. See Columbian Exchange Research Paper.


The use of currency aids in the exchange of goods and services by distinguishing the transactions of buying and selling from barter, setting a standard of value, and allowing the accumulation of wealth. But before an object may be used as money—whether it is a coin, bank note, shell, grain, or (in modern systems) an electronic transfer—the community must accept it as such. See Currency Research Paper.

Economic Cycles

From the beginning of the widespread use of money in China, circa the year 1000, to the trade and budget deficits of the twenty-first century, economic cycles have plagued most of the world. Economists have argued endlessly and inconclusively about exactly what caused these booms and busts, and which governmental policies might counteract their troubling effect on human lives. See Economic Cycles Research Paper.

Economic Growth

The term economic growth is used to indicate the increase of gross domestic or national product of a society; it can be divided into two categories. Extensive growth refers to increases that result from mobilizing more of the basic factors of production: land, labor, and capital. Intensive growth refers to growth that results from using the same factors more efficiently. See Economic Growth Research Paper.

Fur Trade

Fur trading played an important economic role in Russia, Alaska, and North America by opening up the frontiers to settlers in the early 1500s. Native Americans exchanged furs for goods like fi rearms, blankets, and liquor with early European fisherman and settlers, and later with trading companies that sold the furs to luxury clothing manufacturers or to felting industries that made hats. See Fur Trade Research Paper.

General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)

GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, began as a post–World War II document to negotiate policies on international trade. After forty-seven years it culminated in 22,500 pages of text, and an ambitious set of trade- liberalization agreements covering goods, services, and intellectual property. GATT established and was replaced by the World Trade Organization in 1994. See GATT Research Paper.

International Monetary Systems

Goods ranging from cowrie shells (in ancient societies) to cigarettes (in World War II prisoner-of-war camps) have circulated as generally accepted means of payment throughout history, but gold and silver predominated from the eighth century BCE. In the modern world, efforts to peg international currencies against a gold standard were thwarted by balance-of-payment deficits that caused exchange-rate instabilities. See International Monetary Systems Research Paper.

Knowledge Economy

One of the most fundamental properties of human social existence is distributed knowledge. While knowledge resides, in the final analysis, only in the human brain, it needs to be shared with others and distributed in order to be effective. This process embodies what is known as a knowledge economy. See Knowledge Economy Research Paper.

Labor Unions

Labor (or trade) unions, formed by workers who join forces to oppose exploitation on the job—whether in factories or fields—use the power of collective bargaining to achieve certain employment and working rights and entitlements that relate to fair pay, safe working conditions, and general worker welfare. See Labor Unions Research Paper.

Long Cycles

Only since the nineteenth century did the idea of “progress” begin to persuade many people that they lived in a world of unidirectional development. Throughout history long cycles—whether biological, sociocultural, political, or economic— have followed an up-down-up pattern generated by factors occurring within it. The concept of cycles is itself cyclical, going out of fashion when things appear to be on the upswing. See Long Cycles Research Paper.


Mercantilism describes the economic policies of the major European states from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, in a period when rivalries among new national monarchies were increasing along with Europe’s role in world trade. A variety of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century thinkers defined the principles of mercantilist economics. See Mercantilism Research Paper.


Piracy on the high seas—the theft of a ship’s cargo, the ship itself, and the violence or kidnapping it involves—has existed since ancient times. In the twenty-first century piracy poses an ever-greater threat, costing commercial shipping enterprises billions, disrupting international trade, and endangering lives. See Piracy Research Paper.

Property Rights

Concepts of owning property (whether tangible or intellectual) and the contracts drawn up to regulate its use have taken shape in diverse forms throughout history. Examining property and contract practices of three groups—hunter- gatherers of the foraging (Paleolithic) era, agrarian “landed” communities, and industrial capitalist societies—demonstrates how property rights are closely connected with important values and structural aspects of a society. See Property Rights Research Paper.

Silk Road

The Silk Roads were an elaborate and ever-changing network of overland trade routes that linked China, India, and western Eurasia for many thousands of years. Their existence ensured that the history of Eurasia had an underlying coherence, despite the significant cultural differences between its regions. See Silk Road Research Paper.

Slave Trade

The trading of slaves had its origins when agricultural societies increasingly needed to defend lands and borders; it proliferated as growing empires expanded their own. Transatlantic slave trade, with its infamous Middle Passage, ensnared roughly 11 million people between 1443 and 1870; historians caution that using only slave-ship records to account for such numbers leaves out millions who perished in forced marches to factories on the African coast. See Slave Trade Research Paper.

Trade Cycles

Trade cycles are fluctuations in patterns of prosperity and depression that have occurred throughout history as the result of shocks such as wars, oil crises, new technologies—or as the result of waves of investor optimism and pessimism. Economic growth has not been, and is unlikely to be in the future, smooth and steady, but will consist of fluctuations around a trend. See Trade Cycles Research Paper.

Ancient American Trade

Trade was widely practiced in all parts of the ancient New World, among societies of all levels of social complexity, from the earliest hunter-gatherers to late prehistoric empires like the Aztec and Inca. But the high costs associated with overland human transport produced a volume of long-distance trade lower than that found in many other ancient societies. See Ancient American Trade Research Paper.

Ancient European Trade

Geographical advantages on the peninsula that is Europe enabled the development of trading networks from an early date. Rivers and long coastline provided the highways by which goods and peoples moved with increasing freedom. Amber, metals, and grain were early commodities; urbanization brought roads, empires, and commercial networks that reached their peak in the second century CE. See Ancient European Trade Research Paper.

China Seas Trade

The China Seas, a term coined by European navigators and cartographers, comprise fi ve bodies of water adjacent to the country’s 14,000- kilometer-long coastline. Although the Chinese were not generally seafarers, throughout much of China’s history the major ports of the China Seas have been important in coastal, regional, and long-distance trading patterns. See China Seas Trade Research Paper.

Eastern European Trade

To understand trading patterns in Eastern Europe it is useful to examine the East–West divide of Europe that had its roots in the ancient and premodern world. With post-Communist globalization of trade, and the increasing exchange among European Union members in the twentyfirst century, there is little reason to consider Eastern Europe as a distinct trading region. See Eastern European Trade Research Paper.

Indian Ocean Trade

The seas, gulfs, and straits of the Indian Ocean have been areas of intense trading activity from the beginning of human seafaring. The unique nature of its wind patterns enabled the development of maritime trading, linking it to the Atlantic, the South China Sea, and the Pacific. Today the Indian Ocean incorporates those regions that together trade in the bulk of the global oil, which has always been a maritime commodity. See Indian Ocean Trade Research Paper.

Mediterranean Trade

Local and regional sea routes of the Mediterranean were the lifeblood of its islands and coastal settlements from at least the third millennium BCE through to the beginning of the twentieth century CE. Long-distance trade across the length and breadth of its basin has effected considerable and ongoing cross-cultural interaction. See Mediterranean Trade Research Paper.

Mesoamerican Trade

Trade and exchange were ancient and pervasive activities throughout Mesoamerica (much of present-day Mexico and northern Central America). The great ecological diversity of Mesoamerica, from steaming tropical forests to highland mountains and plateaus, stimulated the development of regional specialties (such as textiles from the Peruvian Andes) and the opportunity to exchange surplus yields with others. See Mesoamerican Trade Research Paper.

Pacific Trade

The Pacific Ocean once (and understandably) was perceived as a huge obstacle in the process of exchange—it accounts for one-third of the surface area of the Earth—but it has in fact fostered trade, first in spices, silver, and silks, since the sixteenth century. See Pacific Trade Research Paper.

Trans-Saharan Trade

Although the Sahara is the largest hot-weather desert in the world, it is not entirely barren, and thus held economic attractions for the populated regions of Africa that surrounded it. Trans- Saharan trade in the global economy flourished in gold and slaves, and camel caravans were ubiquitous until railways and roads diverted most export to the oceans. See Trans-Saharan Trade Research Paper.

Trade Goods and Products

Alcoholic Beverages

It is probable that all human communities have used mind-altering substances in their rituals of hospitality and spiritual practices. Alcohol has for millennia been the preferred mind-altering substance of the Mediterranean world and Europe. In recent times its use has spread around the globe. Modern states find themselves torn between encouraging the use of alcohol to earn large tax revenues, and banning use due to medical and social problems caused by alcohol abuse. See Alcoholic Beverages Research Paper.

Bows and Arrows

For millennia before the invention of guns and gunpowder, bows and arrows were the most efficient human instruments for killing at a distance. Their advantage was so great that bows and arrows spread across the Old World, with innovations across cultures, from the undetermined place they first appeared, and were still expanding southward in the Americas when Columbus arrived. See Bows and Arrows Research Paper.

Cereal Grains

Until humans learned to remove hulls from the seeds of certain grasses around 9000 BCE, nomadic human populations relied on hunting and gathering for sustenance. Cereal grains yielded large quantities of food from small fields, which meant they could support larger, sedentary populations; their storability and ease of transfer allowed humans to develop more complex societies and governments. See Cereal Grains Research Paper.


Incas of the Andes were likely to have used the bark of the cinchona tree to combat fever, and Europeans later recognized it as a remedy for malaria, but many found it difficult to stomach and inconsistent in strength. After 1820, scientists’ ability to isolate quinine, an antimalarial alkaloid, from its bark led to the cultivation of the tree in Java and India, until the advent of synthetic antimalarials after World War II. See Cinchona Research Paper.

Clothing and Costume

Although clothing serves a basic human need for protection from cold and hostile elements of the environment, it has also been used as a visual cue for determining gender, profession, social and economic status, and birthplace. Clothing has been radically influenced by social contexts and by the technologies available for making it. See Clothing and Costume Research Paper.


Coal, a readily combustible sedimentary rock, fueled the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. It was burned for heat to generate the steam that powered locomotives and machines, and it was an essential ingredient in the smelting of ore. Even though petroleum replaced coal as the most prevalent fossil fuel during the 1960s, coal and coke coal are still used for power generation and metallurgy. See Coal Research Paper.


As coffee spread from its native Africa to the Middle East, then to Europe and other parts of the world, it was transformed from the drink of a select few to a product for mass consumption. Throughout its rich and varied history, coffee has been associated with prayer, luxury, colonialism, and slavery. It has stimulated all manners and modes of conversation, energized the workforce, and affected myriad aspects of human life. See Coffee Research Paper.

Psychoactive Drugs

Trade in drugs began to flourish in the late 1400s, when European coastal cities played a major role in determining whether a drug would become a global commodity. Drugs were ideal money makers, some with addictive effects that ensured constant demand. Taxes placed on such drugs often funded a nation’s politics, and revulsion to this eventually led to nineteenth-century prohibitions and regulations. See Psychoactive Drugs Research Paper.


Food is the collective noun we use to describe the vast range of animal and vegetable products that we human beings consume for nutrition and survival. At its most basic biological level, food is the fuel that is required by the body for biological functioning, and it is extracted from other organic matter in the form of energy. In order to live, we must eat food. Food also has a fundamental role in the formation of culture. See Food Research Paper.

Fur Trade

Fur trading played an important economic role in Russia, Alaska, and North America by opening up the frontiers to settlers in the early 1500s. Native Americans exchanged furs for goods like fi rearms, blankets, and liquor with early European fisherman and settlers, and later with trading companies that sold the furs to luxury clothing manufacturers or to felting industries that made hats. See Fur Trade Research Paper.


Glass made from melted sand was produced in ancient Egypt but long remained scarce and unusual. Over time hotter fi res made glass manufacture easier, and as it became cheaper and more abundant glass started to change human life profoundly: blowpipes shaped hollow vessels and other containers; fl at window panes made houses warmer and better lighted; and groundglass lenses for telescopes and microscopes enlarged the known world enormously. See Glass Research Paper.


Gold is rare, soft, shiny, and highly valued as jewelry. It seldom reacts with other chemicals and can be beaten into very thin sheets to decorate large objects. Its principal use was as coined money after the sixth century BCE. In the nineteenth century gold rushes in California, Australia, South Africa, and Yukon Territory–Alaska created new and diverse communities in a surge of economic activity. See Gold Research Paper.

Gum Arabic

Ancient Egyptians used gum arabic, a sap-like product from acacia trees grown near the Saharan and Arabian deserts, in mummification; successive societies valued it as a drink thickener, a wall glaze, and a hairdressing product. Its use in manufacturing silk and cotton cloth caused a boom in its trade in the early 1800s. Today gum arabic can be found in cosmetics, confections, and beverages. See Gum Arabic Research Paper.


Once humans learned how to refi ne it, iron became the preferred metal for making both tools and arms. Cheap and strong, iron played key roles in the development of society in both Asia and Europe. Iron is the key component of steel, which remains an important manufacturing material for both civilian and military products. See Iron Research Paper.

Natural Gas

Natural gas consists primarily of methane. It is often located alongside other fossil fuels. Cleaner than other fossil fuels, gas is an important source of energy, both as a gas and in a liquefied state, used in heating, cooking, and powering automobiles. Before it can be used as a fuel, gas must be processed to make it near pure methane. See Natural Gas Research Paper.


Oil, or black gold, is one of the most contentious commodities in recent history. As the most important source of energy in the twentieth century, oil has been a key ingredient in transforming agriculture and transport, and with them, social and economic life. But oil has also been a source of domestic and international conflict, and is closely implicated in environmental degradation. See Oil Research Paper.


The secret of manufacturing paper, which originated in China, spread with printing; before long, printing on paper enormously increased the flood of information sustaining the world. Rags and vegetable fibers were first used to make paper; since the nineteenth century, whole conifer forests have been felled to supply enough wood pulp to meet papermaking demands. See Paper Research Paper.


The 1907 invention of Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, ushered in an era of experimentation in plastics manufacturing. By the 1930s molded plastic goods such as clocks and crockery were the rage, but in the 1960s a proliferation of cheaply made items gave plastics a bad name. Despite the public preference for goods made from natural materials, the plastics industry proves to be remarkably resilient in the twenty-first century. See Plastics Research Paper.


Porcelain was first made in China about 850 CE. The essential ingredient is kaolin, white clay that when fi red at an extremely high temperature acquires a glassy surface. Porcelain wares were first exported to Europe during the twelfth century. By 1700 trade in Chinese porcelain was immense, with Ming dynasty wares (characterized by cobalt-blue-painted motifs) highly prized. See Porcelain Research Paper.


Quinine, the great antimalarial medicine, was the first disease-specific treatment in the Western medical arsenal. Unlike earlier medicines that only masked or relieved the symptoms, quinine was capable of bringing about either a temporary or permanent cure, depending on the type of malarial infection. See Quinine Research Paper.


Between 1760 and 1940 rubber was converted from a trivial curiosity into a major international industry. It has become central to modern living and crucial to the waging of war. This transformation was not the result of a single breakthrough or even efforts in one country, but was the outcome of a gradual accumulation of technical advances and commercial developments across the world. See Rubber Research Paper.


Salt is an essential nutrient but harmful when consumed to excess. The abundance or lack of salt in various locations made it a valuable, traded commodity throughout history. After 1800, salt became a part of manufacturing—for alkali, analine dyes, and rayon, for instance— and more recently for melting snow and ice. More than half of the total amount of salt produced annually is now destined for industrial use. See Salt Research Paper.


Silver has affected human culture and history since ancient times. Silver coinage increased trade, affected the type of trade goods, changed societal structures, and led to war. The 1500s saw new mining and refining techniques and the discovery of silver lodes in the New World, which affected cultures there. Since 1900, industrial uses have superseded its use as currency. See Silver Research Paper.

Slave Trades

The trading of slaves had its origins when agricultural societies increasingly needed to defend lands and borders; it proliferated as growing empires expanded their own. Transatlantic slave trade, with its infamous Middle Passage, ensnared roughly 11 million people between 1443 and 1870; historians caution that using only slave-ship records to account for such numbers leaves out millions who perished in forced marches to factories on the African coast. See Slave Trades Research Paper.

Spice Trade

Trade in spices—especially peppercorns, cinnamon, and cloves—brought together diverse cultures of the western, southern, and eastern parts of the world. This exchange of spices stimulated the first global age (c. 1400–1800), and the beginnings of economic globalization, wherein actions in one area of the world greatly affected people and events on another, far-off continent. See Spices Research Paper.


Sugar, a dietary source of sweetness and energy, can also act as a binder, stabilizer, caramelizer, and bulking agent. Throughout much of history sugar was a luxury. The expansion of the industry in the Western Hemisphere increased the supply of sugar in Europe, making it less costly; it also linked sugar production with slavery and plantation agriculture, thus affecting lasting political, economic, social, and cultural consequences. See Sugar Research Paper.


Since its accidental discovery over ten thousand years ago in the jungle triangle that covers where the borders of Myanmar (Burma), Assam (in present-day India), and China meet, tea has become the most consumed liquid on Earth, apart from water. As a commodity and a beverage, tea has had immense consequences for almost every aspect of human life and international relations. See Tea Research Paper.


Textiles, the broad term used to encompass the range of material objects created from fiber, cord, fabric and/or string—and manipulated by weaving, tying, sewing, knitting, braiding, and other techniques—have been a part of human culture since prehistoric times. Textiles can be studied to examine not only a peoples’ aesthetic sense and development, but to provide insight about socioeconomic, political, and cultural aspects of their lives. See Textiles Research Paper.


Timber, or lumber, is wood that is used in any of its stages—from felling through to processing— in the production of construction materials, or as pulp for paper. Timber has been a resource around the world for many centuries in the craft and construct of all manner of objects and utensils, from dwellings to ships to tables to toothpicks. See Timber Research Paper.

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