elizabeth murray homepage masthead


Return to Lesson Plan

The Consumer Revolution and American Identity

One of the basic questions in American history has always been about American identity. What does it mean to be "American?" Is there an "essence" that is unique to America? If so, where does it come from? Not surprisingly, many historians and others have turned back to the colonial period, to the beginnings of America, to find the source of American identity. The question of American identity in the colonial period is large and difficult, so complicated it would take a lifetime of research to answer adequately.

One important point to think about is that quite often in the past, historians focused only on famous and well-to-do Americans. They also tended to focus on how elite Americans felt about the government of England. But if we want to know about American identity, perhaps it is even more important to find out what average Americans thought, about themselves as well as the mother country. And though their attitudes toward the government of England are important, there are other important factors to consider as well.

An interesting way to consider the attitudes of average people is to consider the products they bought in the marketplace. This line of investigation has several advantages. First, many Americans¿not just the well-to-do, were buying marketplace goods in the 1700s. Second, this is a relatively new field of historical research, so it is very exciting. Third, most Americans (including students) have experience with buying consumer goods. Even though it might not seem immediately obvious that buying products can affect a person(s) much less a society(s) culture, some reflection on your own experience will probably show you how it works. The clothes we wear do more than cover our bodies or keep us warm. They also say something about how we would like people to think of us, stylish, attractive, or perhaps as fans of a particular sports team. Even our choice of drinks, including the very choice to spend money on them, is a statement about our values as individuals. If these individual patterns are shared by a large number of people across the country they can be said to reflect the culture of the country as a whole.

Over the course of the 1700s, the wealth of average Americans seems to have increased steadily(1). As it did, their ability to purchase finely crafted goods increased. In the 17th century, most Americans ate meals out of wooden bowls with a spoon while sitting at a bench or on the floor. By the mid 18th century, at least half of the colonial population was "eating from plates with knives and forks while sitting at tables. A smaller group of this knife-and-fork population ate from some kind of refined earthenware. The rest of the knife-and-fork group ate from coarse earthenware, pewter or wood. A tiny population dined on imported porcelains."(2) From the early to mid-1700s on, the demand for goods like porcelain increased steadily. These British goods, including things like cloth, ceramics, and metal goods, were often highly decorative.

Over time, more and more Americans began to think of those things increasingly as necessities, not luxuries. The desire for these goods reached across the social spectrum of Americans, including colonists of humble means and those far from large cities and towns. The value of such goods was not simply for one's personal enjoyment. Such display was a form of "conspicuous consumption." That is, it was a way of announcing something about oneself and one¿s family to friends and neighbors. One obvious message was prosperity.

A related message of conspicuous consumption was status. In the mobile society of eighteenth-century America where many people were strangers to one another, "self-presentation through dress and manners enabled the newcomer to assert his or her status as a member of a particular social and cultural group; possessing up-to-date information about fashion and genteel behavior enabled women and men to evaluate such markers displayed by their peers."(3) Purchasing certain goods suggested that a person had refined tastes. Such a person would also be assumed to engage in the proper activities (dinner parties and balls) and have the proper manners to go with these goods.

To accommodate the growing demand for consumer goods, a number of shops sprang up in the colonies, especially in large port towns like Boston. The trade in consumer goods aided the overall prosperity of these ports. Because shopkeeping required only limited skills of literacy and math, it was relatively open to women, a situation that had been rarer before. Nearly one hundred women were shopkeepers in Boston between 1740 and 1776.(4)

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 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.

1. John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard, The Economy of British America, 1607-1789 (Chapel Hill, 1985), 57.
2. Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York, 1992), 77-78.
3. Patricia Cleary, Elizabeth Murray: A Woman's Pursuit of Independence in Eighteenth-Century America (Amherst, 2000), 224.
4. Cleary, Elizabeth Murray , 46, 59.