The Revolution Brings Cultural Change

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The Revolution Brings Cultural Change


Revolutionary Style. Among the Puritan elites of Boston and the Quaker merchants of Philadelphia the growing taste for high style and conspicuous consumption did not go unheeded. They built palatial homes and wore imported fabrics. To avoid ostentation that might clash with their religious doctrines, however, they adopted the neoclassical styles in homes and decor that were becoming popular during the revolutionary era. As republican ideas became popular in Europe and America, excessive ornamentation and showy wealth came to be considered gauche. The clean lines of classic Greek and Roman architecture and furniture design (although using the best materials and finishes) came to symbolize not only good taste but also a certain political orientation. Some commentators, however, believed that high living, replete with servants, footmen, and carriages, mocked the republican simplicity of neoclassical styles.


Nicholas Cresswell was a wealthy English land-owner who traveled through the North American colonies from 1774 to 1777 looking for a suitable place to establish a plantation. Caught up in the maelstrom of Revolution, with diminishing hopes of a quick British victory, he returned to England, having rid himself of any notions of becoming a colonist. While staying in Virginia he received news of the American victory at Trenton; his diary captures his surprise and displeasure:

Wednesday, January 1, 1777: Spent the day very happily at Mr. Gibbs with a few of his friends, dancing and making ourselves as merry as Whiskey, Toddy and good company will afford....

Monday, Jan, 6th, 1777: News that Washington had taken 760 Hessian prisoners at Trenton in the Jerseys. This afternoon hear he has likewise taken six pieces of Brass Cannon.

Tuesday, Jan, 7th, 1777: The minds of the people are much altered. A few days ago they had given up the cause for lost. Their late successes have turned the scale and now they are all liberty mad again. Their Recruiting parties could not get a man (except he bought him from his master) no longer since than last week, and now the men are coming in by companies.... Volunteer Companies are collecting in every County on the Continent and in a few months the rascals will be stronger than ever. Even the parsons, some of them, have turned out as Volunteers...summoning all to arms in this cursed babble. D______ to them all.

Source: Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 1774-1777 (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1968).

Funerals and Simplicity. Expressions of solidarity with the Patriot movement changed nearly every aspect of colonial life. Funerals, previous to the nonimportation movement, had been an occasion for great displays of wealth, with fine carriages and mourners dressed in the finest clothes they could afford. Families often went deeply into debt to finance these affairs. In the late 1760s mourners adopted simple garb for funerals, often just a black ribbon for the arm or the hat. This constituted a highly public political statement, one that infuriated rich Tories as they witnessed these austere processions.

Freedom of Movement . Clothing tastes changed around the time of the Revolution, and many of the most bizarre styles began to go out of vogue. The influence of revolutionary ideas in America and Great Britain swung the pendulum back toward a republican simplicity. Men began to wear English country clothes, loose trousers and jackets and high boots. It became acceptable to wear ones own hair again. Women adopted high-waisted, looser dresses. These fashions, which allowed greater freedom of movement and were more adaptable to the homespun fabrics, were the visible embodiment of revolutionary politics in the colonies. This new freedom of dress extended to children, who for decades had been corseted under layers of petticoats and stiff bodices. Boys and girls, it was thought, needed to be restricted in their movements to develop proper comportment and behavior. By the 1770s parents discovered John Lockes writings on child rearing. Nearly a century earlier Locke had urged parents to allow children freedom of movement, asserting that play was a natural part of human development. Boys in the eighteenth century had remained in petticoats until age six or seven but around the time of the Revolution began to adopt trousers by age three or four, allowing for greater freedom of movement.

Buy American. The growing rift with Great Britain in the 1760s produced a new sense of independence in the colonies; the boycotts of British products and buy American campaigns encouraged colonists to look for unique ways to express their American identity. The British Crown imposed tariffs, taxes, and restraints on trade in the 1760s and 1770s, and colonists responded by boycotting British imports. One of the most important British imports was textiles, and Patriots organized drives to produce American-made textiles. Women came together to spin thread and weave cloth for the cause of independence. Their output was relatively small, but they were making a political statement that electrified the colonies and caused great concern to the Crown and British merchants.

Homespun . In New England spinning crazes had cropped up from time to time since the 1720s, organized to encourage industry among young women and as an expression of rural values of self-sufficiency. The political sewing circles of the 1760s and 1770s surpassed all previous efforts. It became acceptable at all levels of society, at least among the patriotically inclined, to turn ones hand to the spinning wheel. It also became fashionable and patriotic to wear clothing made from homespun. Colonial merchants pioneered this new fashion trend, putting away for the moment their lavish imported garb. The students of Harvard College, Yale College, and the College of Rhode Island (now Brown University) appeared at commencement during the late 1760s wearing homespun suits. Such displays irritated royal officials and transmitted a consciousness of the boycott to other young people.

Enforcing Boycotts . The boycotts and home-manufactures drives ebbed after the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 but picked up again with a vengeance from 1767 to 1770 under the hated duties imposed by the Townshend Acts. Imports surged to new highs in 1772-1773, but with the crisis of the prerevolutionary years, what one wore, ate, and drank came to have serious implications indeed. In 1774 Congress established the Continental Association to enforce the boycotts. The association formed local committees that used community pressure against consumers and merchants who used or traded in boycotted goods. The committees distributed petitions that allowed citizens to record their compliance with the boycott and their protest against Crown policies. Porters and washerwomen signed the petitions even though most of the boycotted items were beyond the reach of their purchasing power. Almshouse residents collected rags to make patriotic paper. Continental Association committees along with local Sons of Liberty did not stop short of violence as they seized and burned proscribed goods and tarred and feathered noncompliant merchants and customs informers.

Symbolic Acts . Community pressure and individuals desires to make a statement brought about acts that had a symbolic impact, if little effect, on Britain. Tea became a prime symbol of either resistance or loyalty. The Tea Act of 1773 made this most civilized and social drink a weapon in the trade wars. People in small towns gathered tea and other proscribed items from their humble pantries and burned them in the town square in a quieter version of the dumpings of tea in Boston and other cities. The beginnings of military confrontation in 1775 brought a naval blockade of the colonies, and this further disrupted imports, making home manufactures a necessity rather than a political choice.


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

Mary Beth Norton, Libertys Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown, 1980).

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The Revolution Brings Cultural Change

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The Revolution Brings Cultural Change