The Consumer Revolution and American Identity
Document 1: Table 3.2 "Conjectural Estimates of Income in the Thirteen Continental Colonies, 1650-1774"
This table was created by starting from fairly reliable GNP estimates from 1774 and projecting backwards. The left two columns represent two different estimates of per person income using two different conjectured growth rates. The .3% annual GNP growth rate is based on the assumption that the colonies' economy grew at the same rate as the motherland's. The .6% growth rate represents a position between the conservative .3% estimate and the more generous estimates of other scholars (as high as 1.3%). The right two columns present the same estimates for the colonies as a whole, rather than as per person estimates. In either case, Alice Hanson Jones's comment captures the significance of the data: the standard of living in British North America was "probably the highest achieved for the great bulk of the population in any country up to that time." (See Alice Hanson Jones, "Wealth Estimate for the American Middle Colonies, 1774," cited in John J. McCusker and Russell Menard, The Eonomy of British America (New York, 1985), 55.)
Document 2: T. H. Breen, Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 115.
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. Estimates of the number of women shopkeepers vary widely. While figures based on examining newspaper records yield estimates from 2 to 10 percent, other sources provide higher numbers. For example, 42% of the retailers in Philadelphia in 1756 were women. Nearly one hundred women were shopkeepers in Boston between 1740 and 1776.(2)
Document 3: Patricia Cleary, Elizabeth Murray: A Woman¿s Pursuit of Independence in Eighteenth-Century America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), 224.
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.
Document 4: Bridenbaugh, Carl, ed. Gentleman's Progress, The Itenerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton 1744. (Chapel Hill, 1948), 55.
This example suggests how widespread the desire for consumer goods was among Americans, including colonists of humble means and those far from large cities and towns.
Document 5: Painted Corner Cupboard, Accomack County, Virginia, Yellow Pine, 1750-1760, Collection of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as reproduced in T. H. Breen, Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York, 2004), 46.
Before the mid-1700s, few households had cupboards. Instead, colonists stored their goods in a chest, a storage piece that kept goods safe, but also kept them out of view). By the mid-1700s, the corner cupboard became a common feature in average American homes. It did more than store goods, the chest had done that just as well, if not better. More importantly, it allowed people to display their goods while also storing them.(3) 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.
Document 6: Ethel Armes, comp. and ed., Nancy Shippen, Her Journal Book (New York: B. Blom, 1968.), 173.
One historian argues that as people learned to behave with refinement, they constantly "performed." In other words, they behaved as if they were on stage, as if they were constantly being watched. And in a sense they were. 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 (though in private, since it was considered unrefined to be openly critical.)
Document 7: Elizabeth Murray, "Trade Bill," [ca 1750].
To stimulate demand for goods and to lure customers to one's own shop rather than a competitor's, shopkeepers advertised aggressively. They typically emphasized the London origin of the good, the variety of products available, and their generous terms of credit.
Document 8: "To the Publisher of the Boston Evening Post," Boston Evening Post, June 6, 1738, issue 150, page 1.
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. Colonists desired credit because their prosperity was not increasing as fast as their desire for goods.