NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Brand Names Before the Industrial Revolution

Gary Richardson

NBER Working Paper No. 13930
Issued in April 2008
NBER Program(s):   DAE   IO

In medieval Europe, manufacturers sold durable goods to anonymous consumers in distant markets, this essay argues, by making products with conspicuous characteristics. Examples of these unique, observable traits included cloth of distinctive colors, fabric with unmistakable weaves, and pewter that resonated at a particular pitch. These attributes identified merchandise because consumers could observe them readily, but counterfeiters could copy them only at great cost, if at all. Conspicuous characteristics fulfilled many of the functions that patents, trademarks, and brand names do today. The words that referred to products with conspicuous characteristics served as brand names in the Middle Ages. Data drawn from an array of industries corroborates this conjecture. The abundance of evidence suggests that conspicuous characteristics played a key role in the expansion of manufacturing before the Industrial Revolution.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w13930

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