Necessary Social Factors for
Auctions Since the Classic Era
Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania
Department of Folklore and Folklife,1982
This chapter presents an institutional history. The
auction will be traced from its first mention in Babylonia
to its present form as a technique for livestock marketing.
Although such a history has not been previously undertaken,
this sketch will not be comprehensive. Secondary sources
provide an outline necessary to establish the character of
the cattle auction market. The conditions necessary for the
presence of auction markets, a money economy and trade with
distant or foreign markets, are part of this character, as
are those factors which led to the auction market replacing
the livestock commission. While both methods are
gesellschaftlich, the auction provides the livestockmen with
more direct participation in marketing as well as a community-
based opportunity for social interaction. As the
folklife scholar might expect, change in large social institutions
occurs once people have a practicable course providing
greater opportunity for Gemeinschaft.
Markets are necessary precursors of auctions. This
brief history establishes the earliest occurrence of auctions,
and, more important, differentiates these forms from
modern auctions. In Agrarian Sociology of Ancient
Civilizations, Max Weber sought to provide a basis for economic
discussions of non-capitalistic societies. Herein, he
notes that Mesopotamian trade, while highly developed,
rested upon government price setting (Babylon under
Hammurabi) or market control using royal and temple storehouses
(Weber 1976: 103-4). For instance, cattle taken as
booty in Assyria under Assurbanipal were sold back to the
Assyrians at fixed prices. Under Sargon, grain and sesame
from royal storehouses were sold to keep the prices down in
times of scarcity.
In a similar, perhaps more successful attempt, Polanyi
covers some of the same material from the perspective of the
trader (Note 2). He defines Babylonian trade as a marketless
economy. Here, the traders act as middlemen working on
commission. While the tamkarum (governmental market officers)
more or less set prices, they could also auction the
traders' goods upon request (Polanyi 1957: 24). As exciting
as the presence of auctions in Babylon may be, Polanyi specifidally
warns that these auctions and brokerage were devices
for arranging exchange in the absence of money. Once
markets developed, they became superfluous. As currently
practiced, auctions have reappeared "in a sophisticated form
and in a new role of assisting the functioning of highly
developed markets" (Polanyi 1957:15).
In antique Greece, the military expedition continued to be a
significant means of acquiring trade goods. Polayi
discusses these expeditions at some length, mentioning that
Spartan "booty sellers" accompanied the military to auction
captured slaves and cattle (Polyani 1957:85). Terrance K.
Hopkins, contributing to the same volume of essays, states
that such auctions ranked among the precursors of markets
(Hopkins 1957: 268).
Two related inventions by the Greeks deserve mention
here: the market and coinage. Prior to the sixth century
B.C., people bartered for small articles. F. M. Heichelheim
discusses the prevalence of barter due to problems of record
keeping and transaction size. He points to the cumbersomeness
of money or even a wheat standard in any but
substantial transactions. Recording transactions, sometimes
under penalty of death for failure to do so, generally
proved beyond the capacity of smaller traders (Heichelheim
Coinage as a vehicle of participation
liberated the common man. Quoting Heichelheim:
Small silver money enabled fishers and peasants of
Greece for the first time to compete with the
larger owners in selling their products on the
market (Heichelheim 1958:252).
Necessarily, the development of the market was synchronous
with that of coinage. The nascent Athenian market
moved from near the Acropolis to the
Agora in the early
sixth century B.C. (Ancient 1971: 1-4). As foreign trade
increased, this port location became increasingly active.
Heichelheim would conclude that the price variations at the
deigma (a samples show room in the Agora) indicate the capitalistic
nature of the classic economy (1958:62).
Polanyi would disagree with this conclusion. For the
purposes of this study, however, it is enough to say that
haggling developed into auctioneering as buyers bid on
samples of inexpensive foreign goods displayed in a market
(Heichelheim 1958:62) (Note 3).
At the outset of the only history of modern auction
practices, Wilhelm Stieda mentions that auctions similar to
our own did not exist until Roman times. Contradicting
Heichelheim, Stieda maintains that auctions in Greece were
conducted exclusively by the State rather than by business
Die Griechen kannten die Auktion nur bei
Gegenstanden, die nicht Eigentum von Privaten, sondern
von Korperschaften, namentlich des Staats
waren (Stieda 1907: 305).
Whether auctions began in Grecian or Roman markets is not of
direct bearing to this discussion. Instead, as both
Heichelheim and Stieda indicate, the consideration is of the
commencement of modern auction practices upon the involvement
of merchants in trade by auction.
The Romans do deserve credit for developing the auction
to its fullest extent prior to the modern era. As a colonial
institution, Mommsen finds a record from Portugal
(Mommsen 1877: 100-101); Arnobius mentions one in his native
North Africa; Flavius Josephus describes one in Syria
(Blaise 1954:103). The latter is a report out of Jewish
Antiquities of an elaborate auction on provincial taxation
rights (Josephus 1943: v.7, 89-95). Other occasions for
auction in Rome include rights to farm a piece of property
(Plutarch 1906:6), estate liquidation for indebtedness
(Plautus 1949: 63), compensation for property seized by the
State (Cicero 1913: 256-9 and Long 1870: 1013); and estate
liquidation upon death (Cicero 1927: 108-109).
records that Cato the Elder put up for auction his culled
cattle (boves vetulos) along with a variety of other lots;
cattle and slaves brought higher commissions than the usual
one or two per cent (Mommsen 1877: 92, 102).
Sufficient record of Roman auction practices remains to
enable some description. The standard reference appears to
be George Long's essay in the Dictionary of Greek and Roman
Antiquities from which this account is taken. A crier
(paeco) and/or a public notice would announce the time,
place, and conditions of the auction. The crier acted as
the auctioneer as well, calling out the bids
(liceri,licitari) and entertaining the assembly. Bids were
given by word of mouth or commonly understood signals. The
property would be knocked down (addici) upon the highest
bid. The bid was recorded by an argentarius who could sue
for payment if need be, and saw to the conditions of sale.
In accordance with battlefield practice, a spear would have
been put up as a symbol of the auction, the phrase "sub
haste," under the spear, recalling the sale of booty
acquired in battle (Long 1870: 172). Except for the called
announcement of the sale, the spear symbol, and the legal
status of the recorder, this could describe a current auction
quite adequately. In fact, current auctioneers frequently
mention their next auction early in the day's
trading. Further, rather than being under the spear, lots
are now said to be under the hammer. Finally, the owner of
the auction house frequently acts as recorder and has legal
recourse regarding the conditions of sale, albeit as a private
citizen rather than an agent for the State.
As one might expect, a dearth of contemporary sources
hampers historical research on the period between Rome's
fall and the rise of Venice. No mention of auctions can be found
between Gregorius Magnus (pope, 590-604) (Blaise 1954:
103) and the late thirteenth century. By this time, the
words appears as auxtionarius, meaning "retailer" or
auxionatrix, meaning "huckster" (Latham 1965: 37).
Changes in trade, as well as those in the function and
prevalence of literacy, account for this pause in evidence
of auctions. Although Roman fairs had been introduced to
Western Europe by 493 (Walford 1968: 7), the organization of
fairs and markets did not occur until the late Carolingian
f iscal and political improvements (Addison 1953: 26).
Further, the scarcity of surplus acted to restrict trade to
essentials like iron, millstones, and salt (Baldwin 1937:
Coinage had become debased and rare, returning small
trade to barter (Lopez 1971: 18). The sale of manoral
livestock was incidental even as late as the thirteenth century,
although as D. L. Farmer points out, surplus grain was
increasingly important to the functioning of the manor
(Farmer 1969: 14). By this time, administrative laxity by
the churches and impoverishment by the tolls was causing a
sharp decline in the number of fairs as they passed into
guild control (Addison 1953: 29, 61).
In addition to a minimal state of trade not being conducive
to auctions, direct competition between buyers as a
means of establishing a price seemed to violate the economic teachings
of the medieval church.
Medieval business was
conducted upon moral rather than contractual bases. A just
price was sought in transactions. Such prices were arrived
at by considering the conditions of the market, the cost and
risk of transportation, and production costs (O'Brien 1968:
107). Prices at fairs were usually set by an appraisal upon
which the tolls were set (Addison 1953: 69). When no just
price existed, the buyer and seller sought an equity of burden,
neither individual taking advantage of the particular
need of the other (O'Brien 1968:109ff).
Once the Italian merchants and guildsmen began to
prosper again, conditions were conducive to auctions.
1235, Florentines issued the solidus, worth twelve denarius
(the silver penny minted about 1000). The florin quickly
followed. Indicative of increased trade, functional coinage
rapidly spread throughout Europe (Schevill 1936:291-292).
As mercantile trade advanced, the auction was reintroduced
in Italy. Wilhelm Stieda finds the first mention of modern
auctions in records from a German emporium in Venice in
1335. In the absence of records of the goods handled, we
assume that the Germans availed themselves of the
Constantine rarities for which Venitian trade was famous
The first records of bankruptcy auctions come from this century as
well. Stieda follows Jakob Grimm's work
(1854-1960:entry 472), finding an early mention of a Gant, a
procedure for the seizure and sale of goods to cover debts,
in the. Badener Stadtbuch for 1384. Improvements in
livestock production must have been being made by this time
since cattle figured heavily in these sales (Stieda 1907:
The word "auction" first appeared in English in William
Warner's 1505 translation of Plautus' Menaechmi (Murray
1933: 559, Plautus: 1595). Earlier evidence of the institution
in Britain can be found. R. W. Patten traces a
candle auction for the farming rights on the Chedzoy church
acreage back to the end of the fifteen century (Patten
1971:60-61), Somewhat later, Samuel Kiechel recounts an
auction in Dover by a pair of enterprising Britons who sold
the wreckage of French ships sunk by the British in 1585
Continuing in an etymological vein, note might be made
of the good Anglo-Saxon word "bid". Toiler traces the word
to Aelfric's Grammar (c. 1000) where it meant to ask, pray,
or entreat (Toiler 1898 and Somner 1970: under "biddan").
By the 1400's, it could mean offering money for goods or
bargaining, as well as the earlier meaning (Kurath 1956:
under "beding", and Craigie 1937: under "bid").
The only candidate for the same procedure as an auction
under a different name (similar to Gant for Versteigerung in
German) would be "roup". This is a Scottish word, perhaps
originally from "hrop", meaning crying, clamor, outcry as in
Daer bid a wop and hrop (there shall be ever weeping and
wailing) (Toiler 1898: 563). The entry in the Scottish
National Dictionary has roup synonymous with auction in an
example from the Edinburgh Gazette of 1700 (Grant 1969:488).
Wright notes that the term especially refers to a displenishment
(Wright 1905: 162), although this may indicate more
about the types of auctions undertaken than the specific
nature of the term "roup."
The Dutch East India Company held the earliest ongoing
auctions in Northern Europe related to current business
practices. Probably taking the Italian example, the Company
held twice yearly sales of their remaining stock of cloves
and nutmegs (Stieda 1907:309). It seems likely that these
auctions provided the example for the tulip auctions of the
1630's. Once commenced, auctions based on colonial goods
spread to Britain where the Hudson Bay Company also marketed
furs in a twice annual sale (Stieda 1907: 327).
George McKay finds mention of Dutch book auctions in
1584, 1593, 1596, and 1599. For the latest of these, a
catalogue of the library of Philip van Marnix was produced (McKay 1947:
236). Alfred W. Pollard's Introduction to the
British Museum's List of Catalogues of English Book Sales
gives the source of British book auctions. They were
imported from Holland upon the suggestion of Dr. Joseph Hill
in about 1653 (McKay 1947: 238). The first British book
auction for which we have a catalogue was held on October
31, 1676, when Dr. Lazarus Seaman's collection hit the
block. There have been book auctions at least annually
since then (McKay 1947: 236-237).
The auction came to America through both the British and
Dutch colonists. In 1662, two book auctions were held.
Stokes reports that New Amsterdam permitted Anna Claus
Croesens to sell by the bailiff some books and property.
She held a lien on the latter (Stokes 1915-28: v. 4, p.
219). The earliest book auction in America occurred in
Boston on April 18, 1662 (Stokes 1915-28: v. 6, p. 321).
continue indebted to Stokes for finding record of the social
side of early American auctions. He quotes a British
minister and lady describing the Dutch colonials:
They have Vendues very frequently and make their
Earnings very well by them for they treat with good
Liquor Liberally, and the Customers Drink as
Liberally and Generally pay for't as well, by
paying for that which they Bidd up Briskly for, after the sack has gone
plentifully about, tho'
sometimes good penny worth are got there. (Stokes
1915-28: v. 4, p. 451).
We have no record of the goods placed for sale, although
mixed lots seem probable since no mention is made to the
contrary and the sale seems to be a regular event.
For the bibliophile, we might repeat the well known
notice by Samuel Gerrish. He offered the first known catalogue
for an American book auction (Littlefield 1900:212).
The title page of the copy at the American Antiquarian
Society Library reads:
A catalog of curious and valuable books, belonging
to the Late Reverend...Mr. Ebenezer Pemberton...to
be sold by auction, at the Crown Coffee-House in
Boston, the second day of July, 1717.
This auction together with that mentioned by Stokes and that
of Ambrose Vincent (1713) support McKay's assertion that
book auctions came to America through the British colony,
Boston (McKay 1947: 239).
Laws indicative of the history of auctions were passed
in 1794, 1813, and 1814. In 1794, a duty of ¼ of 1% was set
on auctions of "any interest, right, or estate in lands...
any utensiles in husbandry, and farming stock, ships and vessels" with
½ of 1% on all other goods. Land sales by
residents moving elsewhere and produce sold on the land
where it was raised were excepted from duty. Congress
repealed the law laying duties on stills, pleasurable
carriages, and auctions in April of 1802. Duties on "goods,
wares, and merchandise" sold at auction were reinstated at a
1% rate in July of 1813 and raised to 2% at the end of 1814
(Peters 1845-55: v. 1, p. 397).
These later duties reflect
the surge of auctioned foreign goods, largely of British
manufacture, immediately following the War of 1812. British
manufacturers' agents, anticipating the end of the war, had
stockpiled goods in Halifax and Bermuda. Once the war
ended, Federal restrictions on imports from England were
lifted. In order to copy with the enormous influx of goods
and to simplify the paying of customs duties, auction houses
were established in Eastern seaports (Jones 1968:33).
In an excellent description of the middlemen in American
trade in the first half of the nineteenth century, Fred M.
Jones describes the reaction of importers and jobbers to
this interruption in their chain of trade (Jones 1968:
34-35). These businessmen, with the support of Niles'
National Register (1811-1849), unsuccessfully petitioned
Congress for tenfold increases of duties and the abolition
of customs credits. Their pamphlet, The
outlines their case. As well as tending toward monopoly,
concentrating trade, enhancing prices, and harming both
American manufacturers and importers, auctions were said to
produce all the pernicious effect of gambling (Jones
1968:36). The auctioneers responded with An Examination of
Reasons the Present System of Auctions Ought to Be
Ray Westerfield provides factors in the decline of auctions
in the 1830's. He states that steam navigation opened
the interior ports, thus allowing meetings of commission
house representatives and jobbers (Westerfield 1920:208).
This corresponds with Jones' finding that importers and jobbers
were forced off the Eastern Seaboard to solicit the
business of country merchants who might otherwise have
attended import auctions (Jones 1968:39). Further, merchants
could get eight to ten months' credit in private
sales, as opposed to six months from auction sales (Jones
1968:40). This meant that shopkeepers could buy during the
midwinter business lull, recover interest costs by passing
them on to farmers buying on credit, and have the notes come
due after being paid out of harvest profits. The alternative
would have been a lengthy purchasing trip to the coast
just as the agricultural year was beginning.
Finally, the development of American manufacturing, especially textiles
and dry goods, acted to increase the relative cost of
British imports (Jones 1968:39, and Westerfield 1920:108).
In fact, the share of American products increased at the New
York auctions from 7 to 25% between 1820 and 1830 (Jones
1968:33) (Note 4).
Broadsides attest to the auction as a popular institution
throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
A glance through the catalogues of prominent library
collections indicates the range of locations and goods
From the William L. Clements Library at the
University of Michigan, we find descriptions of
broadsides from New York State announcing a sale of a great
variety of articles (1835) and an estate sale of wood and
timber (1842). Similarly, the Glenbow Historical Library in
Alberta describes broadsides for a variety of
Alberta purebred livestock auctions at the turn of the century.
The Bancroft Library has been particularly
thorough in cataloging California auction notices and catalogues.
These include the jewelry of Lola Montez (1856),
houselots and real estate (1850, 1853, 1860), cargo (1849),
and elegant and rustic furnishings (1873). These California
sales indicate the capacity of the auction method to
establish the worth of items in the volatile economy of the
gold rush. one anticipates that the earlier prices were
considerably higher than the later ones.
Precursors of present day cattle auctions appear in the
middle of the nineteenth century. The first public
livestock auction in America occurred in Ohio in 1836. This
sale by the Ohio Company was also the first sale of purebred
cattle in America. Monthly sales of commercial livestock,
as well, were begun in Ohio by the Madison County Importing
Company. In Kentucky in the 1850's, "court day" sales,
resembling European "tax day" sales, were held on the first
Monday of each month (Engelman and Pence 1958:3-4, and Howe
1896: v. 2, p. 167) (Note 5).
The normal purpose for auctions during the nineteenth
century, however, was more likely to be for the disposal of
remainders and unclaimed items. Here, an item in the Tucson
Daily Record for May 6, 1880, reveals that the local auctioneer
was well enough known to be identifiable by
Auctioneer OH held a sale yesterday and disposed of
several horses, harness, etc., all of which brought
good prices. ("Auctioneer" 1880:3).
Richthofen records a practice hearkening back to medieval
solutions for found items. Local stock associations
received the proceeds of auctioned unattached range calves
and unbranded cattle during the era of cowboy roundups
Still, the Ohio and Kentucky precedents certainly
establish the connection between agricultural production and
auctions. Isolated livestock auctions were also established
after the turn of the century. These includes auctions in
Iowa (1904), Ohio (1911, established by Mennonites),
Nebraska (1912), California (1917) (Note 6), and Minnesota
(1919) (Engelman and Pence 1958:3-5).
Figures taken from articles by Engelman and Pence
(1958:5) and by Abel and Broadbent (1952:Appendix A) readily
illustrate that widespread acceptance of decentralized
marketing of livestock using the auction method began in the
Nationally, the number of livestock auction markets
increased from about 200 to about 2,000 during this decade
(Figure 1). In the Western region, two phases of growth are
recorded. The first, between 1935 and 1940, resulted in an
increase from fifty-six to 179 markets. The second, immediately
upon the end of World War II, shows an increase of
179 markets in a three year period (Figure 2).
Factors facilitating decentralized marketing, referring
to Abel and Broadbent (1952:48) and Engelman and Pence
(1958:5-6) again, include:
improved and extended hard surfaced roads and
thereby increased trucking potential just as motor carriers
were being improved;
2) growing numbers of small packers and improved
refrigeration both at the plants and en route;
3) the development of uniform grade and weight classifications
(see factors 4 and 8 below);
4) improved collection and dissemination of market
news for both buyers and sellers by the federal government;
5) increased transportation and marketing expenses
relative to declining livestock prices in 1930-1933;
6) increased local market for immature and unfinished
stock due to drought-caused abnormal feed distribution in
7) increasing numbers of odd lots ready for market,
especially as fed livestock entered into farm programs;
8) wartime regulations, especially tire and gasoline
9) local pressure to improve and diversify community
markets and services;
10) desire by producers to see livestock sold rather
than shipped to private treaty system terminal markets.
Most generally, dwellers in rural neighborhoods availed
themselves of technological developments to bring together
competing producers and buyers of livestock. The community
was identified as the appropriate locus of working social
gatherings. So considered, livestockmen asserted the
integral relationship between work and social group.
Further, this development implies that marketing is an
aspect of production.
This change from centralized terminal markets located at
some distance from the range to smaller auction houses
nearer the livestockmen recalls a process first described by
Johann Heinrich von Thünen (Thünen 1966: for an abbreviated
description of his theory, see Peet 1970-71). He proposed a
continuum of the intensity of agriculture varying upon the
distance to a sizable market. The nearer to an urban
center, the more expensive the land, the more intensive the
agriculture, the more productive and smaller the holdings.
Feed lots, terminal markets, and truck farms are more likely
found around large population centers. Open range grazing,
the least intensive form of production, would be found
furthest from these urban centers. The ratio of transportation
and production costs, which are important to von
Thünens thesis, did change dramatically in the 1930's and
The development of small, more intensive holdings
and thereby the need for a market which could handle smaller
lots could readily explain the introduction of livestock auction
markets. More importantly, von Thünen's theories
would explain the persistence of private treaty marketing in
the terminal exchanges in the larger cities, Von ThLinen's
demographic theories will play a role in a subsequent
geographical discussion as well.
Auctions developed as a means whereby the State could
equitably distribute property obtained as the spoils of war,
the results of taxation, or legal seizures for debt or legal
misconduct. Where relatively free markets exist, merchants
may adopt the practice in order to efficiently establish
prices, particularly for trade in large numbers of transactions.
The conditions prevalent during periods when auctions
are present and absent can be readily contrasted. During
times of controlled commodity prices, as in the marketless
economies before the Agora and the medieval markets governed
by a just price, auctions are incidental trade methods. By
contrast, during periods of relatively free market prices,
as in the Roman Empire and since the Renaissance Italian
city states, auctions flourish. Extreme instances of the
auction in free price markets occur during trade in popular
rarities (exotic spices, books and coins, art) or prize specimens
(tulips, registered livestock or pets). Again, the
heterogeneity of trade goods prevalent during periods of
foreign or long distance trade encourage auctions while the
homogeneity of commodities from local trade suppress auctions.
The modest medieval markets and the restricted trade
during the War of 1812 contrast with Roman, Dutch, and
English colonial trade and the contemporary rural American
livestock production destined for urban dweller.
sophisticated economic history is called for to establish
the nature of the relationship discerned in this informal
summary between heterogeneous trade goods, free market prices,
The livestock auctions under study here, however, are
something of a special case. They do occur during a period
of relatively free market prices and as part of a long
distance trade mechanism. In colonial trade relationships,
primary and manufactured products were auctioned near the
site of consumption. For example, the Hudson Bay Company
sold its furs at auction in London. Woolens woven in
Liverpool in the 1810's were auctioned in New York City. In
livestock marketing, however, price setting competition
occurs first at the site of production. This is neither an
accident of circumstance nor a necessary condition since
livestock had been marketed previously through centralized
commission sales at some distance from the farms and ranches. Instead,
livestockmen consciously chose a
marketing technique which allowed them greater
participation, electing an opportunity for Gemeinschaft