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The Consumer Revolution and American Identity

(This version contains the background essay for students with additional explanatory text for instructors provided in red italics).

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. In the late 1740s, the governor of South Carolina wrote of some of the products people regularly purchased, including "considerable quantities of Fine Flanders Laces, the Finest Dutch Linens, and French Cambricks, Chints, Hyson Tea, and other East India Goods, Silks, Gold and Silver Lace, &c."(3)

Over time, more and more Americans began to think of those things increasingly as necessities, not luxuries. One critic of consumption habits in the colonies complained that "men can no longer live without things, which but thirty years ago were utterly unknown to them."(4) 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. In the 1740s, a Scottish visitor to the American colonies visited a small log cabin far up the Hudson River in New York, away from any city. Expecting to find frugal, poor, traditional people, he was startled to discover a number of consumer goods inside the family home. In addition to a mirror with a painted frame, the family had ¿half a dozen pewter spoons and as many plates, old and wore out but bright and clean, a set of stone [stoneware] tea dishes, and a tea pot.¿ These goods seemed far too fancy for such a humble home.(5) This example suggests how widespread the desire for consumer goods was among Americans.

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. Consider one example: the piece of furniture known as the corner china cabinet. 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.(6)

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."(7) 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. 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.) After one social occasion, a woman confided to her diary the following comment: "Miss Molly Shippen is very ugly and very formal in her manners, but very good natur'd." (8) Well-mannered colonists also learned to avoid those who did not attain this standard.

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.(9) 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.

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. One writer of the time commented that it was "well known how credit is a mighty inducement with many People to purchase this and the other Thing which they may well enough do without."(10)

1. John J. McCusker and Russell Menard, The Economy of British America (Chapel Hill, 1985), 57.
2. Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York, 1992), 77-78.
3. T. H. Breen, Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York, 2004), 37, quotation 38-9.
4. Breen, Marketplace of Revolution, 185.
5. Breen, Marketplace of Revolution, 34.
6. Breen, Marketplace of Revolution, 46.
7. Patricia Cleary, Elizabeth Murray: A Woman's Pursuit of Independence in Eighteenth-Century America, (Amherst, 2000), 224.
8. Quoted in Bushman, Refinement of America, 55.
9. Cleary, Elizabeth Murray, 46, 59.
10. Breen, Marketplace of Revolution, 136-37.