British American Consumers

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British American Consumers


Seventeenth Century. Few settlers lived completely independent of imported goods at any time in the colonial period. Indeed, English settlement followed paths blazed by traders who acquired furs from Native Americans in exchange for European manufactured goods. Early colonists in New England and the Chesapeake tried to sustain this trade by introducing items such as new metal goods, woolen fabrics, and firearms. The new European trade goods rapidly transformed Native American ways of life. Settlers who arrived earlier also relied on a constant influx of later colonists who brought such goods as nails, gunpowder, lead shot, glass, cooking utensils, books, and cloth to trade for food and lumber. Seventeenth-century tobacco planters traded their crops with Dutch and English merchants for various European products while their contemporaries in Massachusetts traded grain and salt pork for West Indian sugar, molasses, and rum. A modest flow of English products arrived in colonial ports throughout the seventeenth century, much of it purchased by wealthier colonists for their own use and some for resale to their neighbors.

Eighteenth Century. In the early eighteenth century the flow of consumer goods began a slow rise, exploding to a full-blown consumer revolution during the 1740s. The rise in colonial consumption came not because of the English industrial revolution, for that remained some distance in the future; instead early-eighteenth-century British artisans learned how to increase production using traditional methods. The increased production lowered the prices of goods, so more buyers could afford them. Even more important, producers learned how to create a demand for those goods with appealing newspaper advertisements, innovative product exhibits, and attractive shop-window displays. By 1740 ever-increasing amounts

of textiles, ceramics, glass products, paper, finished metal goods, and teas were becoming available at prices lower, and of a higher quality, than most American producers could match.

Shopping. English goods made their way into colonial households in a variety of ways. Throughout the era merchants such as the Long Island whale-oil exporter Samuel Mumford kept small stores of English imported goods that they could sell for cash or barter for country produce such as grain or tobacco, which they in turn sold on the international market. Many southern planters kept stores of imported goods for sale to their neighbors. The Virginian Ralph Wormeley, for example, kept a trunkful of goods under his bed. Northern port cities such as Boston and New York also boasted specialty shops where persons could purchase items such as fabric, pins, tools, and building supplies, but elsewhere people sold consumer goods mainly to supplement their primary livelihoods as farmers or artisans. As the volume of exports rose in the eighteenth century, specialized retail shops began springing up throughout America. Many were locally owned, but in the South many were virtual chain stores run by factors and owned by merchants based in Glasgow, Scotland. Owners learned to arrange their wares in attractive shop-window and indoor displays where prospective buyers could browse and compare. Itinerant peddlers also wended their way through the countryside, carrying wares to smaller communities and country farmhouses where imported items were harder to come by.

Customs and Decor. The consumer revolution exerted a powerful impact on the habits, tastes, and self-perceptions of British Americans. By midcentury many items once enjoyed as luxuries by colonial elites became an expected part of everyday life. In 1700, for example, tea rarely appeared outside the homes of colonial elites, whose servants poured it from expensive, specially made serving pots into special cups as refreshment for honored guests. By 1750 many ordinary farmers and artisans habitually enjoyed daily tea served from inexpensive ceramic such as delftware, sweetened with a lump or two of sugar (which fifty years before had likewise been a luxury). Imports began changing table manners as well. Family members who might once have shared meals from a single wooden trencher began eating from their own individual ceramic plates or bowls, lifting food to their lips with spoons or sometimes forks instead of fingers. Women and men began adorning their clothes with English lace and buttons, accenting their parlors with brassware, and covering their beds with linen. Wealthy householders covered their floors with fine rugs imported from Turkey by English merchants, adorned their walls with rich Oriental tapestries, and draped their windows with elegant Dutch fabrics.


Many colonial families adorned their homes with imported goods although the elite often found such practices among the poorer classes to be pretentious. The Scottish physician and traveler Alexander Hamilton exemplifies this view in the following account of his visit to the household of a New Yorker, with a companion, Mr. M s:

This cottage was very clean and neat, but poorly furnished, yet Mr, M s observed several superfluous things which showed an inclination to finery in these poor people; such as a looking-glass with a painted frame, half a dozen pewter spoons, and as many plates, old and wore out, but bright and clean, a set of stone tea dishes and a teapot. These Mr, M Is said were superfluous, and too splendid for such a cottage, and therefore they ought to be sold to buy wool to make yarn; that a little water in a wooden pail might serve for a looking-glass, and wooden plates and spoons would be as good for use, and when clean would be almost as ornamental. As for the tea equippage it was quite unnecessary.

Source: Alexander Hamilton, Itinerarium, edited by Robert M. Goldwyn (New York: Arno, 1971).

Colonial Identity. As colonists dressed, ate, drank, and decorated more like their cousins on the other side of the Atlantic, they came to think of themselves as inhabitants of civilized provinces rather than rustic colonies. As British Americans they shared with their cousins in England

a common identity, an enjoyment of finery, and loyalties to king and Commonwealth. This effort to imitate things English resulted in a growing similarity among colonial cultures that had been strikingly diverse in 1700. At that time no colonist living in 1750 could have imagined his own province uniting with other American colonies to form a nation independent of the British Crown. Americans celebrated their place in what they regarded as the greatest, freest, most enlightened empire the world had ever known, and they increasingly looked to the British Isles as the source of the goods that they believed could make their lives decent, respectable, and civilized.


John Brewer and Roy Porter, eds., Consumption and the World of Goods (London: Routledge, 1993);

Carole Shammas, The Pre-Industrial Consumer in England and America (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1990).

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British American Consumers

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