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This would be no later than Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy (1957).

I was recently re-reading Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky, which features the "Qeng Ho" - a society of sorts that travels around the galaxy in ramscoop starships trading with planetary civilizations, with no fixed home base. These folks combine the (TV tropes warning!) Space Nomad and (sort of) Proud Merchant Race tropes, which immediately reminded me of the "Free Traders" in Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, which in turn made me wonder: is CotG the first known instance of this combination, or is there an earlier/earliest example?

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  • Just to be clear, the traders must be nomadic, correct? So de Camp's Viagens Interplanetarias series (1949) wouldn't count.
    – DavidW
    Commented Feb 6, 2021 at 21:08
  • Yes, although the series looks interesting - do you have a recommended starting point?
    – Ben Bolker
    Commented Feb 6, 2021 at 21:17
  • if someone wants to comment on the downvote/close vote I will be happy to try to edit this (I tried to make it an "earliest known instance of X" rather than a list-question ...), or delete it if I can see how it is off-topic/out of scope.
    – Ben Bolker
    Commented Feb 6, 2021 at 22:19
  • 2
    I think someone is just objecting to the way you've phrased it. Let me try tweaking the wording a bit, and you can roll it back if you don't like it.
    – DavidW
    Commented Feb 6, 2021 at 22:50
  • 1
    James Blish's Okie stories, collected as Cities in Flight., came out around 1950. One was renamed from Gravitogorsk-Mars to Interstellar Master Traders.
    – Spencer
    Commented Feb 6, 2021 at 23:13

2 Answers 2

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Poul Anderson's Star Ways (1956) just predates Heinlein.

Each Nomad ship was actually a clan—an exogamous group claiming a common descent. There were, on the average, some fifteen hundred people of all ages belonging to each vessel, with women marrying into their husbands' ships. The captaincy was hereditary, each successor being elected from the men in that family, if any were qualified.

But names cut across ships. There had only been sixteen families in the Traveler I, which had started the whole Nomad culture, and adoption had not added a great many more. Periodically, when the vessels grew overcrowded, the younger people would get together and found a new one, with all the Nomads helping to build them a ship. That was the way the fleet had expanded. But the presidency of the Council was hereditary with the Captain of the Traveler—third of that name in the three hundred years since the undying voyage began—and he was always a Thorkild.

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If this is a valid example of the concept, it's a bit earlier than the ones that have been mentioned so far.

1950: "To the Stars", a novel by L. Ron Hubbard; first published as a two-part serial in Astounding Science Fiction, February 1950 and Astounding Science Fiction, March 1950, available at the Internet Archive (part 1, part 2); published in book form as Return to Tomorrow and also under the original title.

The Hound of Heaven is a slower-than-light interstellar freighter whose crew, cut off from planetbound society by relativistic time dilation, endlessly ply the space lanes from star to star with loads of ore and gems and trade goods.

Wikipedia plot summary:

Protagonist Alan Corday is a young engineer, and is kidnapped from a spaceport called "New Chicago" and taken aboard the interstellar trading starship Hound of Heaven. The ship is commanded by a charismatic leader named Captain Jocelyn, who tells Corday to use his skills to help the Hound of Heaven in its travels between Earth and space colonies in other star systems. On the first page of the book's prologue Hubbard cites "the basic equation of mass and time.... AS MASS APPROACHES INFINITY, TIME APPROACHES ZERO", meaning that interstellar travelers at near light speed experience time relative to their environment, and when they return to their home star will find that decades or centuries may have passed. Six weeks of time aboard the ship amounts to roughly nine years experienced by those on Earth. Corday resists mingling with the culture aboard the starship, but when he returns home after travels with the Hound of Heaven he finds that his fiancee has aged and has trouble with her memory. Corday realizes his only home has become that of the starship. Captain Jocelyn is killed in an ambush on a dystopian Earth, and Corday takes command of the ship.

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  • Interesting, but not really a society ... just one ship, right?
    – Ben Bolker
    Commented Feb 7, 2021 at 18:42
  • The society seems to be confined to the one ship. I don't recall if there are other human trading ships plying the star lanes—it's been a long time since I read the novel—but if so I don't think there's much communication between them, so each ship would be a distinct society. If you want a multi-ship society, that's up to you, it's your question. In that case, this one doesn't count; I wasn't sure if it would.
    – user14111
    Commented Feb 8, 2021 at 2:21

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