Monday, July 30, 2012


On the curious origin of the word curio:

"The Empress, the first American ship to dock at a Far East port,
returned from Canton in 1785, making a 20 percent profit on invested
capital. In the following years, China trade expanded rapidly. By 1800,
the number of American ships that cleared Canton in one year had swelled
to one hundred. In trade volume, America now ranked second only to Great
Britain. The boom in trading, however, was buttressed more by the
natural products that merchants collected from the Pacific, especially
in the Hawaiian isles, than by the native products of the American
continent. Although the Empress voyage was a success, the Chinese soon
discovered that the ginseng they bought from the Americans was not the
same as the Korean herb that had been used for centuries in traditional
Chinese medicine. Consequently, it became increasingly difficult for
American traders to sell products brought from their native land. They
had to look for alternatives, soon finding that the Pacific abounded
with natural products that would cater to the demands of East Asian as
well as American markets. Fortune-seekers moved into the Pacific to
scavenge for furs, whales, bêche-de-mer (sea cucumbers), tortoiseshell,
pearls, shark fins, birds' nests, grain, fish, salt, coal, sandalwood,
lumber, copra, cowhide, tallow, arrow-root, spices, guano, human heads,
and even human beings. These commodities gave currency to the
nineteenth-century term curio, famously adopted by Herman Melville in
Moby-Dick (1851): The New England innkeeper, Peter Coffin, told Ishmael
that the Pacific savage Queequeg had 'a lot of 'balmed New Zealand heads
(great curios, you know).' The Oxford English Dictionary, in fact, cites
Melville's sentence as the earliest recorded use of the word."

Yunte Huang, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective
and His Rendezvous with American History, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010,
p. 11.