A merchant is a person who trades in commodities produced by other people to earn a profit. A merchant historically was anyone who was involved in business as long as industry, commerce, and trade have existed. The status of the merchant has varied during different periods of history and among different societies. In modern times the term occasionally has been used to refer to a businessperson or someone undertaking activities (commercial or industrial) for the purpose of generating profit, cash flow, sales, and revenue utilizing a combination of human, financial, intellectual and physical capital with a view to fueling economic development and growth.
There are two types of merchant:
Merchants have existed as long as business, industry, trade and commerce have existed. A merchant class characterized many pre-modern societies. Open air, public markets were known in ancient Babylonia and Assyria, China, Egypt, Greece, India, Persia, Phonecia and Rome. These markets typically occupied a place in the town's centre. Surrounding the market, skilled artisans, such as metal-workers and leather workers, occupied premises in alley ways that led to the open market-place. These artisans may have sold wares directly from their premises, but also prepared goods for sale on market days. In ancient Greece markets operated within the agora (open space), and in ancient Rome the forum.
In antiquity, exchange involved direct selling through permanent or semi-permanent retail premises such as stall-holders at market places or shop-keepers selling from their own premises or through door-to-door direct sales via merchants or peddlers. The nature of direct selling centred around transactional exchange, where the goods were on open display, allowing buyers to evaluate quality directly through visual inspection. Relationships between merchant and consumer were minimal.
The Phoenicians plied their ships across the Mediterranean, becoming a major trading power by 9th century BCE. The Phoenicians imported and exported wood, textiles, glass and produce such as wine, oil, dried fruit and nuts. Their trading skills necessitated a network of colonies along the Mediterranean coast, stretching from modern day Crete through to Tangiers and onto Sardinia. The Phoenicians not only traded in tangible goods, but were also instrumental in transporting the trappings of culture. The Phoenician's extensive trade networks necessitated considerable book-keeping and correspondence. In around 1500 BCE, the Phoenicians developed a phonetic alphabet which was much easier to learn that the pictographic scripts used in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Phoenician traders and merchants were largely responsible for spreading their alphabet around the region. Phoenician inscriptions have been found in archaeological sites at a number of former Phoenician cities and colonies around the Mediterranean, such as Byblos (in present-day Lebanon) and Carthage in North Africa.
The social status of the merchant class varied across cultures; ranging from high status (the members even eventually achieving titles such as that of Merchant Prince or Nabob to low status, as in Ancient Chinese culture, owing to the presumed distastefulness of profiting from "mere" trade rather than from labor or the labor of others as in agriculture and craftsmanship. The Romans defined merchants or traders in a very narrow sense. Merchants were those who bought and sold goods while landowners who sold their own produce were not considered to be merchants. Being a landowner was a 'respectable' occupation. On the other hand, the trade of merchant was not considered 'respectable'. In Greco-Roman society, merchants typically did not have high social status, though they may have enjoyed great wealth, and there were exceptions, such as in Syria and Palestine in late antiquity, where merchants did have a high social position.
Although they may have lacked high social standing, merchants in ancient Rome often made handsome profits. Umbricius Scauras, for example, was a manufacturer and trader of fish sauce (also known as garum) in Pompeii, circa 35 C.E. His villa, situated in one of the wealthier districts of Pompeii, was very large and ornately decorated in a show of substantial personal wealth. Mosaic patterns in the floor of his atrium were decorated with images of amphora bearing his personal brand and bearing quality claims. One of the inscriptions on the mosaic amphora reads "G(ari) F(los) SCO[m]/ SCAURI/ EX OFFI[ci]/NA SCAU/RI" which translates as "The flower of garum, made of the mackerel, a product of Scaurus, from the shop of Scaurus." The reputation of Scauras' fish sauce was known to be of very high quality across the Mediterannean and its reputation travelled as far away as modern southern France.
In the Graeco-Roman world, merchants served the needs of the wealthier landowners. While the local peasantry, who were generally poor, relied on open air market places to buy and sell produce and wares, major producers such as the great estates were sufficiently attractive for merchants to call directly at their farm-gates. The very wealthy landowners managed their own distribution, which may have involved exporting. The nature of export markets in antiquity is well documented in ancient sources and archaeological case studies. Markets were also important centres of social life.
In Medieval England and Europe, market towns dotted the landscape. Blintiff has investigated the early Medieval networks of market towns and suggests that by the 12th century there was an upsurge in the number of market towns and the emergence of merchant circuits as traders bulked up surpluses from smaller regional, different day markets and resold them at the larger centralised market towns. Peddlers or itinerant merchants filled any gaps in the distribution system.
During the thirteenth century in Europe, businesses became sufficiently permanent to maintain sedantary merchants and agents. Merchants specialised in financing, organisation and transport while agents were domiciled overseas and acted on behalf of a principal. These arrangements first appeared on the route from Italy to the Levant, but by the end of the thirteenth century merchant colnies could be found from Paris, London, Bruges, Seville, Barcelona and Montpellier. Over time these partnerships became more commonplace and led to the development of large trading companies. These developments also triggered innovations such as double-entry book-keeping, commercial accountancy, international banking including access to lines of credit, marine insurance and commercial courier services. These developments are sometimes known as the commercial revolution. 
Luca Clerici has made a detailed study of Vicenza's food market during the sixteenth century. He found that there were many different types of merchants operating out of the markets. For example, in the dairy trade, cheese and butter was sold by the members of two craft guilds (i.e., cheesemongers who were shopkeepers) and that of the so-called 'resellers' (hucksters selling a wide range of foodstuffs), and by other sellers who were not enrolled in any guild. Cheesemongers' shops were situated at the town hall and were very lucrative. Resellers and direct sellers increased the number of sellers, thus increasing competition, to the benefit of consumers. Direct sellers, who brought produce from the surrounding countryside, sold their wares through the central market place and priced their goods at considerably lower rates than cheesemongers.
From 1300 through to the 1800s a large number of European chartered and merchant companies were established to exploit international trading opportunities, for instance the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London, chartered in 1407. A detailed study of European trade between the thirteenth and fifteenth century demonstrates that the European age of discovery acted as a major driver of change. In 1600, goods travelled relatively short distances: grain 5-10 miles; cattle 40-70 miles; wool and wollen cloth 20-40 miles. However, in the years following the opening up of Asia and the discovery of the New World, goods were imported from very long distances: calico cloth from India, porcelain, silk and tea from China, spices from India and South-East Asia and tobacco, sugar, rum and coffee from the New World.
By the eighteenth century, American merchants, who had been operating as importers and exporters, began to specialise in either wholesale or retail roles. They tended not to specialise in particular types of merchandise, often trading as general merchants, selling a diverse range of product types. These merchants were concentrated in the larger cities. They often provided high levels of credit financing for retail transactions.
Merchants have often commissioned and been the subject of art.
Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532.
Sir Thomas Gresham by Anthonis Mor, c. 1560.
Governors of the Wine Merchant's Guild by Ferdinand Bol, c. 1680.
A Jewish merchant and his family by Paolo Uccello 1465-1469
Portrait of Amsterdam merchant,Cornelis Nuyts (1574-1661) by Jürgen Ovens.
The Carpet Merchant by Jean-Léon Gérôme, c 1887.
The Merchant by Abraham van Strij c. 1800
Mediterranean port with Turkish merchants by Adriaen van der Kabel, 1682
|Holbein's The Merchant Georg Gisze at Smarthistory.|
Many buildings have taken their names from their former use as the home or place of business of merchants:
Perhaps the only substantiated type of retail marketing practice that evolved from Neolithic times to the present was the itinerant tradesman (also known as peddler, packman or chapman). These forerunners of travelling salesmen roamed from village to village bartering stone axes in exchange for salt or other goods (Dixon, 1975).
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