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9 Bizarre Moments in Economic History

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In the last 2,000 years, commodity shortages, financial speculation, wars, famines, and outright manias have created some pretty strange economic behavior throughout the world. Here are nine examples.

1. Cake or Death?

In order to stop rising inflation and devaluation of the currency in third century Rome, Emperor Diocletian instituted fixed prices on most consumer goods. Anyone selling goods at prices higher than those of the emperor was put to death; this led to hoarding of goods. A law was then passed that forbade the hoarding of goods. Penalty? Death. So people just closed their businesses, then another law was passed. You guessed it: shut down your business or fail to follow in your father's business? Death. It's amazing the Roman Empire lasted as long as it did.

2. Gonna Barter Like It's B.C. 99

When the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, so did the Roman financial system. Part of the collapse was the disappearance of Roman coinage. Nowhere was this more evident than in England, where, according to archeological evidence, money basically disappeared, driving the British isles straight back to a barter economy. Coinage only came back centuries later when the English were forced to pay protection money (Danegeld) to the Vikings to stop the constant pillaging.

3. 99.9% Pure

In 15th century Germany, grain shortages "“ acceptable "“ frequently led to beer shortages "“ unacceptable. In response, brewers in towns like Munich and Regensburg used seeds, spices, and rushes to flavor their beers. Showing an uncomfortable foreshadowing of future events, German authorities instituted purity laws stating that only water, barley, and hops could be used in the brewing of beer. The rule, or Reinheitsgebot, is still on the books today.

4. Nothing But the Best for France

While the Sun King, Louis XIV, and his building of Versailles typically get all the credit for bankrupting France in the seventeenth century, his Minister of Finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert deserves some kudos as well. Colbert's tax schemes, deficit spending, and manic obsession with the production of luxury goods "“ to the detriment, or outright exclusion of ordinary consumer goods "“ emptied the French treasuries, drove the peasantry to starvation, and laid the foundation for the bloodiest revolution of the age. But, let's face it: who wouldn't trade the fate of an entire nation for a really, really well made tapestry?

5. Adjustable Rate Mortgage, Archduke Ferdinand?

In the 1860s, the rulers of the newly-formed Austro-Hungarian Empire encouraged their bankers to be more free with their lending standards. Their goal was to encourage growth in the empire. The result (this is going to sound eerily familiar) was over-speculation in building, massive default on borrowed funds, and economic collapse throughout Central Europe. The worldwide depression reached all the way to the United States and triggered the Panic of 1873. On the bright side, many of the most beautiful buildings in Europe come from this period of "irrational exuberance."

6. Mississippi Burning

John Law, a Scottish banker and businessman, took control of a French enterprise called the Mississippi Company in 1717. In just a few years, he turned the company into the main economic force behind the French colonies throughout the world. The share price for the company went from about 500 livres in 1719 to 10,000 livres in 1720. Just one year later though, in a rather Enron-like turnaround, the stock price collapsed, Law fled France, and the French government (as the primary shareholder) was forced to cancel a significant portion of its debt obligations leaving lenders throughout the world ruined. Economists refer to the episode as the "Mississippi Bubble."

7. The Mason-Dixon Bottom Line

Many have read about the effects of hyperinflation on the German Weimar Republic. From 1920-1923, prices in Germany increased as much as 3.25 million percent. People burned their old currency for warmth, since it was less costly than buying wood. But, few know that the same type of hyperinflation, albeit to a lesser extent, affected the Confederate States of America. From 1861 to 1864, the commodity price index rose as high as 10% a month. By the end of the Civil War, the cost of living in dear old Dixie was 92% higher than before the war.

8. Prayer Pays

In 1943, due to shortage of raw materials like paper and leather, and an increase in wartime piety, there was an actual Bible shortage in the United States.

9. Tokyo Falling

Japan had one of the most meteoric economic rises of the twentieth century. By the late "˜80s, property values had risen so high that all the land in Japan was worth four times the value of all the property in the United States. The real estate value of Tokyo alone was valued at more than that of all America. By the end of the century, however, the Tokyo stock exchange was off 60 percent of its 1989 high, and property values had fallen as much as 80 percent. Some blame over-speculation, others blame Michael Crichton's novel Rising Sun.

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The Secret to the World's Most Comfortable Bed Might Be Yak Hair
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Tengi

Savoir Beds laughs at your unspooling mail-order mattresses and their promises of ultimate comfort. The UK-based company has teamed with London's Savoy Hotel to offer what they’ve declared is one of the most luxurious nights of sleep you’ll ever experience. 

What do they have that everyone else lacks? About eight pounds of Mongolian yak hair.

The elegantly-named Savoir No. 1 Khangai Limited Edition is part of the hotel’s elite Royal Suite accommodations. For $1845 a night, guests can sink into the mattress with a topper stuffed full of yak hair from Khangai, Mongolia. Hand-combed and with heat-dispensing properties, it takes 40 yaks to make one topper. In a press release, collaborator and yarn specialist Tengri claims it “transcends all levels of comfort currently available.”

Visitors opting for such deluxe amenities also have access to a hair stylist, butler, chef, and a Rolls-Royce with a driver.

Savoir Beds has entered into a fair-share partnership with the farmers, who receive an equitable wage in exchange for the fibers, which are said to be softer than cashmere. If you’d prefer to luxuriate like that every night, the purchase price for the bed is $93,000. Purchased separately, the topper is $17,400. Act soon, as only 50 of the beds will be made available each year. 

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Fart Gallery: A Novel History of Spencer Gifts
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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When U.S. Army Corps bombardier Max Spencer Adler was shot down over Europe and imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II, it’s not likely he dreamed of one day becoming the czar of penis-shaped lollipops and lava lamps. But when Adler became a free man, he decided to capitalize on a booming post-war economy by doing exactly that—pursuing a career as the head of a gag gift mail-order empire that would eventually stretch across 600 retail locations and become a rite of passage for mall-trekking teens in the 1980s and 1990s.

To sneak into a Spencer Gifts store against your parents' wishes and revel in its array of tacky novelties and adult toys felt a little like getting away with something. Glowing with lasers and stuffed with Halloween masks, the layout always had something interesting within arm’s reach. But stocking the stores with such provocations sometimes carried consequences.

A row of lava lamps on display at Spencer Gifts
Dean Hochman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Returning from the war, Adler sensed a wave of relief running through the general population. Goods no longer had to be rationed, and toy factories could return to making nonessential items. The guilt of spending time or money on frivolous items was disappearing.

With his brother Harry, Adler started Spencer Gifts as a mail-order business in 1947. Their catalog, which became an immediate success, was populated with items like do-it-yourself backyard skating rinks and cotton candy makers [PDF]—items no one really needed but were inexpensive enough to indulge in. In some ways, the Spencer catalogs resembled the mail-order comic ads promising X-ray glasses and undersea fish kingdoms. Instead of kids, Adler was targeting the deeper pockets of adults.

Bolstered by that early success, Adler moved into a curious category: live animals. He had small donkeys transported from Mexico and marketed them as the new trend in domestic pets. LIFE magazine took note of the fad in 1954, observing the $85 burros, being sold at a clip of 40 a day, “except for stubbornness, are very placid.”

Burro fever foreshadowed the direction of Spencer’s in the years to come. The Adlers opened their first physical location—minus livestock—in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in 1963, expanding on their notion to peddle unique gift items like the Reduce-Eze girdle, which promised to shave inches off the wearer’s stomach. That claim caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which chastised the company for advertising the device could reduce body weight without exercise [PDF]. The FTC also took them to task for implying their jewelry contained precious metals [PDF] when the items did not.

Offending the FTC aside, Spencer’s did a brisk enough business to garner the attention of California-based entertainment company Music Corporation of America, Inc. (MCA), which purchased the brand and proceeded to expand it in the rapidly growing number of malls across the country in the 1970s and 1980s. (The mail order business closed in 1990.)

Brick and mortar retail was ideal for their inventory, which encouraged perusal, store demonstrations, and roving bands of giggling teenagers. The company wanted its stores to capture foot traffic by stuffing its aisles with items that had a look-at-this factor—a novelty that invited someone to pick it up and show it to a friend. When executives saw specific categories taking off, they “Spencerized,” or amalgamated them. When there was a resurgence of interest in Rubik’s Cubes and merchandise from the 1983 Al Pacino film Scarface, visitors were soon greeted in stores by stacks of Scarface-themed Rubik’s Cubes.

Mike Mozart via Flickr

Apart from its busy aesthetic—“like the stage from an old Poison video,” as one journalist put it—Spencer's was also known for its inventory of risqué adult novelty items. Pole-dancing kits and sex-themed card games occupied a portion of the store’s layout. The toys captured a demographic that might have been too embarrassed to visit a dedicated adult store but felt that browsing in a mall was harmless.

Sometimes, the store’s blasé attitude toward stocking such items drew critical attention. In 2010, police in Rapid City, South Dakota seized hundreds of items because Spencer's had failed to register as an “adult-oriented business,” something the city ordinance required. As far back as the 1980s, parents in various locales had complained that suggestive material was viewable by minors. In 2008, ABC news affiliate WTVD in Durham, North Carolina dispatched two teenage girls with hidden cameras to see what they would be allowed to buy. While they were shooed away from a back-of-store display, they were able to purchase “two toy rabbits that vibrate, moan, and simulate sex” as well as a penis-shaped necklace.

As a possible consequence of the internet, there are fewer incidences of parental outrage directed at Spencer’s these days. And despite the general downturn of both malls and retail shopping, the company bolsters its bottom line with the seasonal arrival of Spirit Halloween, a pop-up store specializing in costumes. Despite only being open two months out of the year, their Spirit locations contribute to roughly half of Spencer's $250 million in annual revenue.

Today, the chain’s 650 stores remain a source for impulse shopping. They still occasionally court controversy over items that appear to stereotype the Irish as drunken oafs or other inflammatory merchandise. With traditional mall locations expected to shrink by as much as 25 percent over the next five years, it’s not quite clear whether their assortment of novelties will continue to have a large retail footprint. But so long as demand exists for fake poop, fart sprays, and penis ring toss kits, Spencer’s will probably have a home.

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