Consumerism and Consumption

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In the early modern era (1500–1800), what scholars call the consumer revolution swept the Atlantic world, affecting the continents and peoples of Europe, Africa, and North and South America. European exploration and colonization of the Western Hemisphere, and the desire for wealth that helped fuel such projects, resulted in the extraction of resources that both met and stimulated demand in Europe, while also creating new colonial markets for European manufactured goods. The results of this transformation, to which the origins of modern consumer patterns and practices can be traced, included rising standards of living for some. Yet the consumer revolution also expanded New World slavery, encouraged the transatlantic slave trade, and drew indigenous North Americans into webs of dependency. Consumption patterns shaped the new societies of the Western Hemisphere and transformed the old cultures from which they combined.

The item that structured emerging patterns of production and consumption was sugar. Tended by Indian and, later, African slave labor on Caribbean islands colonized by Spain, sugar fed increasing and expanding European appetites even as its harsh plantation-style cultivation resulted in the deaths of scores of bound laborers. What had been a luxury item used by elites in Europe became available to a larger swath of the population, sweetening other spoils of Atlantic trade such as coffee and tea.

consumption and colonial cultures

The model of sugar's increasing production and decreasing price resulting in greater availability and access typified consumer patterns into the eighteenth century. Yet perhaps the first consumer revolution was experienced by indigenous North Americans who survived the virgin soil epidemics wrought by contact with Europeans. In particular, Algonquian and Iroquois language groups in the Great Lakes region exchanged beaver pelts with French and Dutch traders for guns, alcohol, metal tools, and "trinkets" that Europeans thought possessed low economic value but that Indians used in rituals and ceremonies. European demand for fur hats, items of warmth but also of fashion, resulted in new trade networks with and among Native Americans, setting various Indian groups in competition with one another to supply European traders, causing animals to be overhunted and sometimes resulting in violent conflict. Even as patterns of supply and demand disrupted relations among Indian groups, they often facilitated interactions between Europeans and Native Americans. As the latter grew increasingly dependent on trade goods, a departure from traditional subsistence patterns, manufactured items became essential to daily life as well as frontier diplomacy, with "gifts" securing necessary alliances and preventing warfare. Yet by the 1760s, some Indian spiritual leaders were calling for a renunciation of European ways and goods.

The eighteenth century also saw North Americans of European descent, particularly British colonists, become increasingly desirous of and dependent on consumer goods and the trade that carried them. Tea and cloth were especially important items, but also tableware, furnishings, and books. Easy credit extended by English factors to colonial merchants meant that men of commerce could import more items and pass them along to colonial retailers and consumers, who also often purchased on credit at competitive rates. Changes in production resulting from industrialization in England generated more goods and a wider variety of choices, demonstrated by merchant accounts and the lengthy and descriptive lists of goods hawked through newspaper advertisements. English merchants grew wealthy from transatlantic commerce and came to dominate the slave trade to North and South America. Colonial merchants in northern port cities also participated, while planters in the Chesapeake and the Lower South not only sought luxury goods from abroad,

but also slaves to labor in their tobacco, rice, and indigo fields, food to feed those bound laborers, and cheap imported fabric to clothe them. Like sugar, tobacco and indigo became desirable consumer commodities.

Cultural shifts structured these economic systems and stimulated demand as people with purchasing power sought a higher standard of living and emulated the elite practices associated with it. An underground economy of theft and pawning in which runaway slaves and servants participated in colonial port cities meant that even the "lower sorts" might access the spoils of empire. Yet even as an empire of goods knit Britons together through consumption, interpretations of its meaning and expressions of social distinction separated them. Elite provincials could never attain the standards set at the English court or by the peerage, but they continually raised the status bar in their own communities through the quality of goods—a finer china tea service or a more expensive and recent style of damask cloth—and a host of practices, from education and elocution to poise and posture, that fell under the heading of "gentility." Although both men and women hoped to be genteel, many of the practices that such an identity required, particularly consumption and the pursuit of fashion, were feminized. Men displaced anxieties about debt and dependence on market economies onto women's bodies and behaviors as consumption increased through the middle of the eighteenth century.

consumption and revolution

Paradoxically, the very consumer goods and practices that economically structured and culturally integrated the British Empire provided one means by which the empire fractured beginning in the 1760s. New taxes passed by Parliament to pay off debt accrued during the Seven Years' War (1756–1763) met with colonial resistance in the form of boycotts of imports. In response to the Stamp Act of 1765, which levied a duty on all paper and paper transactions, many colonial merchants agreed not to import British goods until the act's repeal. In addition, resistance leaders encouraged colonists, particularly genteel women, to forgo consumption of imported goods and replace them with domestically produced items such as homespun cloth. Since the Stamp Act's repeal in 1766 suggested that the boycotts were successful, resistance leaders such as the Sons of Liberty advocated nonimportation and nonconsumption when faced with the Townshend Acts of 1767, which taxed glass, paper, paint, lead, and tea. The beverage of choice in the colonies, tea, acquired an additional layer of significance as the focus of the Tea Act of 1773, which encouraged a group of men in Boston, disguised as Mohawk Indians, to dump chests of the politically odious but still culturally desirable commodity into the harbor. The politicization of widely purchased consumer items brought ordinary colonists into the political process as they developed a sense of themselves as Americans connected across regions, distinct in their habits from Britons. In 1774 the First Continental Congress enacted colonywide nonimportation and nonconsumption. Thus, consumer goods and practices, so central to colonization and the exploitation of natural and human resources in the Atlantic world, helped make the American Revolution possible and facilitated the project of nation building.

consumption in the new republic

After the Revolution, Americans debated the independent Republic's place in the transatlantic economy and its continuing dependence on international markets. Consumer goods and practices figured prominently in these heated discussions over the character and future of the nation. Rampant consumption of cheap imports characterized the mid 1780s, as government under the Articles of Confederation stood powerless to enact a unified commercial policy that would prevent European nations from dumping goods on American markets. Some believed that the American public could not be relied upon to restrain themselves in the face of such temptation. Such social and economic issues, in part, led to a refashioning of the American nation state with the Constitution. Indeed, one of the newly empowered Congress's first steps was to levy a set of tariffs on imports.

As Secreatary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton's vision of a commercial nation became a reality due to merchant capital, mechanization, and expansion, spurring what historians call the market revolution, the need to protect burgeoning domestic industry by making its fruits appealing to American consumers grew more pronounced. While foreign goods remained desirable as luxury items, particularly sought by elites and a rising middle class, the "necessities" of life could be produced and consumed domestically. Skilled craftsmen-turned-laborers produced shoes in places such as Lynn, Massachusetts, and New England's textile mills generated cloth that competed with English fabric. The federal government's protection of these industries and their consumer goods cemented the existence of an American industrial working class, separated the ostensibly gender-specific spheres of home and work, and tied regional economies together by ensuring that midwestern farmers and southern planters would purchase American cloth. Yet such commercial policies also stimulated regional tensions. Thus the consumerism that had connected the British North American colonies to England, and then became a tool for creating the independent American nation, had a hand in threatening its unity.

See alsoClothing; Fur and Pelt Trade; Furniture; Merchants .


Axtell, James. "The First Consumer Revolution." In his Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Breen, T. H. The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Bushman, Richard L. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Random House, 1992.

Carson, Cary, Ronald Hoffman, and Peter J. Albert, eds. Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994.

Mintz, Sydney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985.

Shammas, Carole. The Pre-Industrial Consumer in England and America. New York: Oxford, 1990.

Kate Haulman