Eighteenth-Century Style and Culture

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Eighteenth-Century Style and Culture


New Fortunes, New Tastes . In Europe a rigid code governed dress and manners. Members of each social class or profession dressed a certain way, clearly identifying individuals as belonging to a particular category. People found no compelling need to change these social markers. But in the eighteenth century a revolution in the production of textiles brought easily made clothing and other consumer accessories. The notion of fashion and changing styles emerged. Wealthy and middling folk could vary their dress to suit fashion and individual taste, and it became more difficult to guess a persons position just by his clothing.

Luxury . By the mid eighteenth century, prosperity among the merchant and planter classes of British North America brought an increasing display of luxury goods. Wealthy colonials bought the latest clothing, carriages, and fine houses furnished in mahogany. They employed liveried servants to drive their coaches and wait at tables set with fine china. In the 1750s and 1760s increases in British government spending in the colonies, particularly on the military, brought surging wealth to North American merchants. Trade with Great Britain and among the colonies was booming. Colonial cities became arenas for competitive displays of wealth. In Philadelphia the tax rolls between 1756 and 1772 record a tripling of the number of taxpayers claiming gentleman status.

Conspicuous Consumption . While the boycotts of the pre-Revolutionary period and the turmoil of the Revolution disrupted consuming habits, the interruption was brief. By the early 1780s, as the war had moved to the Southern colonies, foreign visitors noted that the wealthy of New York continued to build lavish houses and ride in fine carriages. Even struggling farmers of the backcountry and laborers in the cities developed a taste for consumer goods in this period. Inventories of estates in the mid to late eighteenth century show that humble farmers owned earthenware dishes and bowls, forks, pewter teapots, blankets, and bedsteads whereas earlier in the century they had made do with wooden bowls and rough homemade furniture. Tea drinking was the great leveler of social habits. People of every class in the colonies drank tea, and most had the appurtenances that went with the tea habit: cups, sugar bowls, and kettles. Even the inmates of the Philadelphia almshouse demanded tea, and they wanted imported bohea tea, not some inferior substitute.

Elite Style . Men were the peakcocks of the mid eighteenth century, perhaps because they had a stronger public presence, while women were relegated to the house-hold much of the time. The fashions of the French court reigned over the English-speaking world during most of the 1700s, and for men this meant closely fitting coats and knee breeches made from rich, brightly colored silks and velvets, lace trim on collars and cuffs, and white silk stockings. The essential mark of a gentleman, though, was a wig, preferably made from womens hair and powdered white. These fashions were difficult to maintain, and even the richest colonials struggled to maintain the standards of the fabulously wealthy English gentry and royalty. The richest planters and merchants eagerly awaited ships bearing European goods and would buy only the latest fashionable items. Middle-class lawyers, doctors, and shopkeepers copied the styles of the colonial gentry as best they could though their coats were cut more simply and their wigs of wool were horse or goat hair.

Wigs . The full regalia of a gentleman required a complete team of servants, valets, and butlers, not to mention personal tailors, seamstresses, cordwainers (shoemakers), wig makers, and dressers. The wig was a particularly troublesome article, uncomfortable and difficult to maintain. Wealthy men kept their heads shaved and wore nightcaps or turbans in private. Going into public in the powdered wig of a gentleman meant that the hair of the wig first had to be smeared with a grease made from animal fat, curled with a hot iron, and rolled in papers. It was then placed on the head of the wearer and dusted with plaster of paris or flour. If the wig was too tight, the wearer suffered from itching and heat, if too loose he risked it going askew or falling off altogether. Wigs were so heavy and precarious that gentlemen required special lessons on how to walk while wearing them. Abrupt motions could cause a shower of white powder to fall on ones shoulders.

Earning and Spending in 1774

Given below are estimates of personal wealth and prices of various consumer goods in the last year of prosperity before the disruptions of warfare and blockade. The first table gives samples of net worth of colonists throughout the income range, measured in total assets, including houses, possessions, land, servants, and slaves:

Net Wealth of Residents of the Thirteen Colonies

Income GroupTotal Net Wealth for Least Wealthy Member of Each Income Group (in Pounds Sterling):
Richest One Percent£2,271.6
Next Richest One Percent1,763. 3
Richest Ten Percent591.2
Ninth Decile335. 5
Eighth Decile209.6
Seventh Decile146.7
Sixth Decile84.6
Fifth Decile45.9
Fourth Decile25.8
Third Decile11.3
Second Decile4.3
Poorest Ten Percent-199. 8

The second table gives some prices for various goods found in the estates of deceased American colonists in the year 1774. It shows the range of goodsand human propertythat colonists owned and what each income group might have been able to afford:

Items in the Estates of Colonial Americans

ItemAppraised Value in Pounds Sterling
Source: Alice Hanson Jones, Wealth of a Nation to Be: The American Colonies on the Eve of the Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980).
Barrel of pork0.15
Small washing tub0.15
2 Tea pots, bowl, cream jug0.03
Bed, etc.177
10 bushels of oats0.56
Year-old colt2.25
3 Pounds coffee0.11
Brass kettle0.45
6 Silver teaspoons0.30
Fine shirt30.2
Woolen shirt8 0.0
Mahogany stand and tea urn2.86
12 Mahogany chairs, 
hair bottoms7.15
Large family Bible0.86
Scotch carpet5 2.1
Diamond ring10.01
Negro man60.06
Negro wench46.48
Negro boy35.75
Negro girl28.60
Young mulatto male child7.15

Wigs and Social Distinctions . Subtle differences in class and profession were discernible to some by the style of wig a man wore. Doctors sported a physicks wig that was teased in a fashion known as a natty bob. Ministers wore the parsons wig with rows of neat curls. Certain crafts were exempted from the burdens of wig wearing; artists and wealthy artisansmen who had to work with their handswere permitted the liberty of appearing in their own hair. The silversmith Paul Revere and painter Benjamin West are shown in portraits sporting natural heads of hair.

Womens Hair . Women in the eighteenth century generally kept their hair covered with hoods or caps. However, in the 1770s the style changed, and fashionable women wore huge, elaborate, powdered hairdos. American women generally did not wear wigs but favored rats, or hairpieces, which they added to their hair for more stunning height and fullness. These pieces were literally glued on and were so difficult to arrange that women had their hair done only once every month. In the meantime they slept with their necks resting on wooden blocks instead of pillows to prevent their hair from falling into disarray. Women also tried to dress in the fashions of the French court and thus wore tightly laced corsets and low-cut gowns.

Etiquette . While any upstart who acquired wealth could purchase fashionable clothes, moving among the colonial elite required breeding and manners that could take years or a lifetime to acquire. The mark of a gentleman was to be perfectly at ease in society, confident in the manners he had learned from birth. However, colonial gentry still felt inferior to Europeans and strove to keep up. Books of etiquette were quite popular. Less-wealthy Americans in particular resorted to these guides so as not to appear gauche among the gentry. Colonials looking to fit into high society went to tutors to rid themselves of regional accents and to learn a smattering of literature, painting, and sculpture. They acquired some training in music, fencing, and above all, dancing.

Dancing . The essential skill of a gentleperson was dancing. Around it revolved all social rituals, socializing, business, and courtship. Among the Chesapeake gentry, balls were the center of social life. Those who could not perform gracefully on the dance floor were subject to ridicule and ostracism. French minuets were popular, as were dances derived from English country reels. Southerners were also handy at rollicking jigs derived, at least in part, from African American dancing. Philip Fithian, a Northerner, lived as a tutor on a Virginia plantation in 1773-1774 and wrote of his intense embarrassment at not being an accomplished dancer. He abstained from dancing rather than cutting an awkward figure on the dance floor. Fithian recorded in his diary that dancing was a necessary qualification for a person to appear even decent in Company! While the social life of the upper classes had its intensely ritualized and formal aspects, the gentry, in fact, engaged in many of the same activities as Americans of all classes. Drinking, horse racing, bear-baiting, cock fights, card playing, and dancing formed the central repertoire of social activities among both rich and poor.


Cary Carson and others, eds., Of Consuming Interest: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994);

Ronald Hoffman, ed., Economy of Early America: The Revolutionary Period, 1763-1790 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988);

Alice Hanson Jones, Wealth of a Nation to Be: The American Colonies on the Eve of the Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980);

J. A. Leo LeMay, Robert Boiling Woos Anne Miller: Love and Courtship in Colonial Virginia, 1760 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990);

Stephanie G. Wolf, As Various as Their Land: The Everyday Lives of Eighteenth-Century Americans (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

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Eighteenth-Century Style and Culture

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