For thirty years I gave tours of the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor outside Chicago and talked about the earliest European history of the area, which was the French trade, the couriers de bois who paddled through the wilds of the upper Midwest from Montreal in search of one thing: beaver pelts. Why? To make fancy top hats for the European upper class.
Dude is starting a fire with flint and steel on a real island in Illinois
Now I give tours of Monterey, where the earliest European history is of course the Spanish, who were sailing to California from the Phillipines and China in search of one thing: sea otter pelts. Why? To make capes and caps for the Chinese upper class.
wicked sea otter snapback dude!
If you look at key trade items that led to the creation of new places, they tend to be luxury goods. It ain’t the Polyester Road that goes through Samarkand, it’s Silk. Heck, some places are even named after these goods: Java, Spice Islands, Cote d’Ivoire. Penang in Malaysia evinces the layers of trade from Portuguese and Chinese to English. The Spanish and Portuguese spent two hundred years looking for gold in the Americas.
And they found it. Even if they had to pry it out of your cold, dead nose
Even the second and third waves of settlement are often focused on luxury goods. When you visit the Custom House in Monterey, the oldest public building in California, you learn about the cowhide trade during the Mexican era in the 1820s, where boats were laden with hides and then shipped much farther than China: to Boston and New York, where the markup was about 10 times the price in California.
hidebound and hell bent for leather
Here’s the Custom House.
And of course once the Americans manage to take over California from the Mexicans – in fact about exactly three weeks later, the Americans get all hot and bothered for gold as well, and basically San Francisco and all of Northern California get created in like a year.
which is why there are still like a thousand of these despite the earthquakes
Interestingly, the 19th century witnesses the rise of industrial economies and trade becomes more a quantity thing. The European top hats stop being beaver and start being, of all things, silk. The hides being shipped from Monterey are used not so much for boots and jackets as for belts to power factories. Malaysia becomes more interesting for rubber and palm oil, Illinois runs out of beaver and starts growing corn by the crore, and dear old Monterey starts whaling on whales to produce the oil that lights and heats everybody’s house.
This sidewalk is made of whale vertebrae. Honestly
Now, between the Gold Rush and the discovery (which oddly eluded the Spanish for a century) that San Francisco was a WAY better harbor than Monterey, little old Monterey became a backwater. No more hides, no more whales. So, they turn to tourism, which is, in itself, a luxury good. They do it way back in the 1880s, when only the wealthy get more than one day a week off.
They called this one Casa de Oro
And this was a hotel and…
Pretty soon with the tourists come the artists. Robert Louis Stevenson. Eventually Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Robinson Jeffers, Mary Austen, and a local guy named John Steinbeck who turned tales of the Inland Empire into a Nobel Prize. He published Grapes
of Wrath just two years after Monterey created their historic district of downtown adobes in 1937 – basically the same time as New Orleans’ created the Vieux Carré.
And then he writes another book called Cannery Row, about another industrial operation, which then collapses and gets turned into yet another tourist attraction, although this time on an industrial rather than exclusive scale.
My tour continues through Cannery Row, past the 1984 Monterey Bay Aquarium which cemented its tourist position to 17 Mile Drive, the fun way to get to Carmel, the town the artists flocked to 100 years ago. There is plenty of luxury at Pebble Beach and the houses of 17 Mile Drive.
Carmel itself has a history dating to 1771 when Fra Junipero Serra established his second mission on El Camino Real (he actually established it a year earlier in Monterey) and there you can see the heavily reconstructed Mission, mostly dating from the 1930s.
I suppose today PLACE is the luxury item, and with most houses starting at a million despite their über-cute diminutive scale, Carmel is a luxury good and its trade is booming.
The houses have no numbers, only names. You have to get your mail at the post office.