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student background essay on consumer culture and credit

primary source materials:

Trade Bill c.1750
 of Elizabeth Murray

Boston Gazette 6 November 1769, notice of Jane Eustis

Title: Consumerism and the American Revolution

Lesson overview: This lesson is student centered and designed to take place within one class period. It will engage students in analyzing primary source documents in order to understand the colonial marketplace of Boston in the years preceding the Revolution. The topics discussed loosely adhere to California State Standard 8.1, which states, "Students understand the major events preceding the founding of the nation and relate their significance to the development of American constitutional democracy." (below).

Historical Background: In the years preceding the American Revolution, the New England port of Boston had an abundance of merchants and shopkeepers who sought to stimulate and to satify consumer demand for imported goods. The people of the town and surrounding countryside were eager to buy the latest fashionable merchandise, including imported cloth and tea from England. The trading relationship between Britain and her colonies enriched British merchants and manufactures, contributing to the nation's overall wealth. With hugh quantities of highly desirable consumer goods available at low prices and on credit, consumption of English wares transcended class and provided even those of the laboring ranks a chance to purchase goods enjoyed by those of higher social status.

A series of Navigation Acts, which prohibited trade with countries other than England, enacted in the 1660s and later, dictated the legal terms of trade within the empire. While poorly enforced for much of the eighteenth century, these acts concerned Boston merchants who traded with foreign countries; many engaged in illegal smuggling activities. British legislation governing colonial trade became more problematic in the 1760s. With the victory in the French and Indian war and the peace treaty ending it in 1763, the British government was saddled with a massive war debt. In order to pay off these debts, Parliament strengthened the enforcement of the Navigation Acts and passed numerous taxes, which colonial consumers, retailers, and merchants viewed as trampling on the rights of free trade. Angry merchants and consumers organized and supported mass boycotts of English imports.

With non-importation and non-consumption agreements in the late 1760s and early 1770s, many individuals who had participated very little in politics previously were able to take part in actions that mobilized the populace against the government of Britain. These protests were not led simply by ideology; they were also a direct result of a perceived threat to an economic system that colonists had enjoyed for decades. The bonds forged among colonists in this push for marketplace independence eventually manifest themselves in a broader movement to break all colonial ties with Great Britain.

Bibliography: For more on the consumer revolution and the mass mobilization of colonists in the 1760s and 1770s, see Charles M. Andrews, The Boston Merchants and the Non-Importation Movement. (New York: Russell & Russell, 1968);T. H. Breen, Marketplace of Revolution: how consumer politics shaped American independence. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Stuart Bruchey, ed., The Colonial Merchant: Sources and Readings. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc, 1966); Patricia Cleary,Elizabeth Murray: A Woman¿s Pursuit of Independence in Eighteenth-Century America . (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000); John W. Tyler, Smugglers and Patriots: Boston Merchants and the Advent of the American Revolution. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986).

Guiding Questions: Why did colonial consumers desire British goods? What problems did dependence on items from the mother country cause for the colonies?

Learning Objective: Students will show an understanding of the consumer culture in Boston and its impact on revolutionary attitudes in the town by reading a brief overview, analyzing primary source advertisements from colonial Boston, and finally analyzing an advertisement from a current media source.

Activities: a.) Students are placed in groups of two to pair-share information about the discussion question and primary source documents. b.) Begin with this question on the overhead or front board. "If you could buy your clothes anywhere you wanted, where would that be? Why?" Follow-up question: "What if you didn't have the cash?" This question should open up a discussion about how people use fashions to make statements about themselves and their identity, as well as the use and availability of credit. c.) Students will read the brief overview on "Consumer Culture and Credit" within Boston. d.) Students will need copies of both primary sources and a primary source analysis sheet, such as this one by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. e.) After completing the analysis sheet, have students work together to answer the questions from both documents. f.) Conclude with a class discussion focusing on fashion trends, social mobility, and credit.

Assessment: For independent practice, have students find some form of contemporary advertisement from a magazine, newspaper, or the internet. Have them analyze what it says about the business doing the advertising and contemporary society, using the questions below. a.) What good or service is being advertised? b.) What images do you see in the advertisement? c.) Can you speculate as to which individuals -- by age, race, gender, region, hobbies -- might be the targets of the advertisers? In other words, who is most likely to be interested in this good or service? d.) What does it say about what is important in today's society? e.) To what extent would people need to use credit in order to afford this product? What are some problems with credit? f.) Would you buy the product in the advertisement? Why or why not?

Extending the Lesson: The following lesson plan on the site, the Stamp Act should be taught after completing this lesson plan.

Teacher-author: This lesson was created by Ryan Baker, Long Beach Unified School District.