Comparing Apples with Oranges

This Friday we will officially launch Trading Consequences this Friday (21st March), with publication of our White Paper and the launch of our visualization and search tools. Ahead of the launch we wanted to give you some idea of what you will be able to access, what you might want to view and what you might want to compare with these new historical research tools. Professor Colin Coates has been exploring the possibilities… 

The “Trading Consequences” website literally allows us to compare apples and oranges.  Both fruits became the objects of substantial international trade in the nineteenth century, as in the right conditions they can remain edible despite being shipped great distances.

Screen shot of a visualisation of Apple Trades

They are complementary fruits in many ways, as apples are grown in temperate climates whilst oranges prefer warmer conditions.  They may overlap geographically, but typically we associate different parts of the world with each fruit.  In the context of the British world, apples grew in the United Kingdom, of course, but they also came from Canada, New Zealand and the United States, among other locations.  Oranges from places like Spain, Florida or Latin America entered the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century.  The two maps which result from entering “apple” and “orange” into the database show, at a glance, how oranges appeared more often in reference to warmer zones than apples.

Screen shot of a visualisation of Orange Trades

The chronological distribution of commodity mentions was roughly similar in both cases.  Increased attention from 1880 to 1900 reflects in part the expansion of the documentation in that period, but it likely also reflected growth in trade and consumption.  Historian James Murton has pointed out that regular trade in apples developed from Canada to Great Britain in the 1880s, focused primarily in Nova Scotia.  On average, one million bushels of apples reached British markets (Murton, 2012).

In contrast, both apples and oranges show sudden spikes in the 1830s, for entirely different reasons.  The spike for apples points the researcher to a useful “Report from the Selection Committee on the Fresh Fruit Trade” in 1839.  But the mid-1830s spike in oranges points instead to the activities of Orange Lodges in Ireland.  The other visualisation shows this anomaly even more clearly, as IRELAND takes on a prominence in related geographical terms in the 1830s that it did not occupy afterwards.

Screenshot of Visualisation looking at trades in the 1830s

This project entailed teaching computers to read as an historian might, and there are distinct advantages to being able to deal with such a wide range of documentation.  However, all historians must be critical of the sources we use. The visualisations in “Trading Consequences” point towards useful sources for further study, and to suggest that historian may wish to consider some regions in their analysis.  The importance of the United States in the discussions about apples is noteworthy, for instance.  Australia has a large number of mentions of oranges, though it is important to note that a small city boasts the same name and could account for part of the number.  (Interestingly enough, Orange, New South Wales, did not grow many oranges according to the Australian Atlas 2006! But it does have apples.)

"Fruit" by Flickr user Garry Knight / garryknight

“Fruit” by Flickr user Garry Knight / garryknight

The increase in mentions of both apples and oranges from the 1880s on may reflect improving living standards in Britain in that period.  Britain’s decision to adopt free trade had led to an increase in a wide variety of imported foodstuffs (Darwin, 2009).  As the heightened attention to both apples and oranges probably shows, these fruits were part of that movement.

The “Trading Consequences” visualisations show some instructive comparisons, some that may point to different ways to conceive of trade in these resources, and others which illustrate the care with which researchers should approach results.


  • John Darwin, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
  •  James Murton, “John Bull and Sons: The Empire Marketing Board and the Creation of a British Imperial Food System” in Franca Iacovetta et al., eds., Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 234-35.
  • New South Wales Government, Agriculture – Fruit and Vegetables in the Atlas of New South Wales, Available from:

Bootstrapping (for historians)

Disciplines have their own vocabularies, and these may sometimes appear obscure to people who peek into the new areas.  My word-processing package used to tell me that it didn’t recognise “historiography” as a word, for instance.  We historians use this word, which denotes the study of historical interpretations, rather frequently, and we normally begin our academic studies with an historiographical discussion in order to situate our analysis in the context of previous studies of similar questions.  So my computer was wrong to insist, with its dramatic red underlining, that “historiography” was not a word.  But more surprisingly, it has stopped doing so now.  Someone, and I know it wasn’t me, must have told Microsoft Word that this is a fully acceptable English-language term.  But its built-in dictionary still doesn’t know what it is.

When we began working with computational linguists on this project, one word that really stuck out for me was “bootstrapping.”  Not surprisingly, I had never come across some words and acronyms that computational linguists use.  “OCRed data,” for instance, is one example.  But such acronyms and their usage made sense once I learned them.  Bootstrapping was somewhat different:   I knew this was an English word, so I did not mentally have to underline it in red.  The phrase “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps” was familiar, at least grammatically, even if it does seem illogical and impossible.  And I could visualise what a bootstrap looked like.  But I didn’t fully understand how it fit into the sentences we exchanged – it was not a word, after all, that I used very often.  In contrast, computational linguists seemed to bootstrap fairly frequently, or at least their sentences did.  As an outsider, it seemed rude to ask the meaning of words that I thought I should know.

Image of a pair of Dr Marten shoes.

“A bootstrap”: Photo taken by Tarquin, 2005. (shared under CC-SA via Wikipedia)

Fortunately, Jim Clifford explained the term to me:  teaching the computer to teach itself, to pull itself up by its own bootstraps, I suppose.  The processer should recognise when a new circumstance occurs, and then apply that rule when it next encounters the same issue.  Or as the Wikipedia entry puts it:  “a self-sustaining process that proceeds without external help.”  In this context, we humans are, I guess, that external help. Bootstrapping struck me as a key component of the approach that computational linguists take to their studies.

The importance of “bootstrapping” for this project led me to wonder if some of the people whose writings we were studying used the word.  So I decided to check the Early Canadiana On-line collection.  A simple word search turned up only one instance.  (Of course I know that such a search may have missed many references in the documents that were poorly OCRed – see how quickly I caught on!)  The one example appeared in an 1884 issue of the Canada Medical & Surgical Journal (p. 496), which reprinted an article from the Journal of the American Medical Association on the topic of a “New Form of Saddle-Crutch.”  This saddle-crutch used “boot-strap webbing” made of leather which allowed the user, in this case an over-weight man with a fractured leg, to vary the height of the crutch.

Image of a description and illustration of the "Saddle Crutch" from

Image of the “Saddle Crutch” – with thanks for


There undoubtedly is an appropriate metaphor about the merits of “bootstrapping” as a way of dealing with over-sized subject material, such as the vast amounts of printed data that we are attempting to study in the Trading Consequences project.

Professional success for Trading Consequences team member

Dr Jim Clifford, postdoctoral fellow at York University on the Trading Consequences project, has accepted a tenure-track job at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon beginning 1 July 2013.  Jim’s work on this digital humanities project undoubtedly contributed to his success.  Hired as an Environmental Historian, Jim joins the History Department and contributes to their existing strength in environmental and digital history.  He will remain a core researcher on the Trading Consequences team after he takes up this new position, and we will apply to have him listed as a co-applicant on the SSHRC component of the grant.

In addition to this career success, Jim was also awarded a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship, which he has declined, in order to take up the position in Saskatoon.  He also recently received word that he has been offered a visiting fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich.   Congratulations, Jim!