elizabeth murray homepage masthead



Student directions, with links to background essay, primary and secondary sources

Note for teachers on primary and secondary sources

Background essays:
"Consumer Revolution and American Identity"
1. student version
2. teacher version

1. Lesson title: The Consumer Revolution of the Eighteenth Century and American Identity (This lesson was created by Dave Neumann, Long Beach Unified School District).

2. Overview:
This lesson takes an important colonial topic, the New England economy, and places it in the context of a transatlantic consumer economy. It addresses key issues, like the roles of average people "including women, consumers, and shopkeepers" in the development of this economy. This lesson involves students in examining and evaluating primary documents to construct an answer to a significant historical question. It should take one to two traditional periods, depending on the pace of the class. Besides access to the Elizabeth Murray website, the only required material is the class textbook.

3. Historical background and bibliography:
Over the course of the 1700s, the wealth of average Americans increased steadily. As it did, their ability to purchase finely crafted goods increased. Over time, Americans began to think of those things increasingly as necessities, not luxuries. Desire for these goods reached across the social spectrum of Americans. The value of such goods was in part a form of "conspicuous consumption," a way of announcing prosperity, status, and the manners commensurate with such achievements. People learned to judge each other by the standard of their mastery of the products and behaviors associated with "refinement." Peers who failed to perform properly were often harshly criticized.

To accommodate the growing demand for consumer goods, a number of shops sprang up in the colonies, especially in large port cities like Boston. The trade in consumer goods aided the overall prosperity of these cities. To stimulate demand for goods and to lure customers to one's own shop, shopkeepers advertised aggressively. To keep goods flowing, shopkeepers often deferred payment in full for six months to a year. In many places in the colonies, 80 to 90 percent of all goods were sold on credit. Occasionally this practice created problems for shopkeepers, who were owed money by a great number of customers who were slow to pay up. Colonists desired credit because their prosperity was not increasing as fast as their desire for goods.

T.H. Breen,"'Baubles of Britain': The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century," Past and Present [Great Britain] 1998 (119); T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York, 2004); Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York, 1992).

4. Guiding question:
What role did consumer products play in American culture in the 1700s?

5. Learning objectives:
Students will analyze the experiences of ordinary day people within the context of the era in which they lived. Students will analyze primary documents, using them to understand life in the eighteenth century.

6. Activities
Input and Guided Practice:
The overview essay is the starting point of this lesson. Teachers may assign students to read the essay before class, in class, or may choose to lecture from it. Please note that the teacher version has additional detail and commentary.

Independent Practice:
Once students are familiar with the background of the "consumer revolution," they are ready to examine the documents (both secondary excerpts and primary sources). This activity can be done in groups, pairs, or individually. It might be a good idea, however, to begin by modeling or discussing the first document together. Students can use the suggestions for interpreting documents as a guideline. After examining the documents, students should be able to discuss their responses to the question: What role did consumer products play in American culture in the 1700s? Ideally, they should be able to point to various social and economic roles that consumer products played in the colonies, including provoking debates about the possible dangers of overindulgence.

7. Assessment:
The lesson could conclude by sharing out verbally, with brief quickwrites, or with longer and more formally-structured essays