Consumer Culture (Post 3)

Chloe Kiernicki, Post 3

In the economic theory of mercantilism, a mother country establishes colonies to gain natural resources and provide a market for the goods of the mother country.  In the eighteenth century, the English Empire established colonies across the world for those reasons.  During the first half of the eighteenth century, the British colonies in North America were thirteen separate societies, tied together by Britain, but little else; the colonies in the north were originally a religious safe haven for the persecuted of England, the colonies in the south were originally comprised of fiercely independent planters, but both evolved into mercantilist societies.  Seemingly tied together only by the location of North America and the English crown, the thirteen individual societies eventually bonded together to rebel against the British due to the commonalities of consumer experience.

Illustration of English high fashion in the eighteenth century. Image courtesy of 18thcenturyblog.com

Illustration of English high fashion in the eighteenth century. Image courtesy of 18thcenturyblog.com

The wealthy, gentry planters of the Virginia colony expressed their wealth and status in a variety of ways, one of which being fashion.  Because few elaborate and expensive clothes were produced in the North American British colonies, colonists who could afford such clothes sent for catalogues from Europe (Breen, “Baubles,” 76).  Often, in the rooms of their houses, as exhibited in the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, the gentry women would display small posters with drawings of outfits for each season.  The ability to afford couture London wears, as well as to keep up with what was fashionable in England at the time, connected the colonial upper classes and served as a venue of shared British identity (Breen, “Baubles,” 78).  In the 1750s and 1760s, the decades leading up to the American Revolution, the gentry women in colonial North America were wearing pompadours, broad skirts, and Italian gowns, just as the women were in England and as the wealthy women were in other British colonies in North America.  The lavishness of this fashion-wear provided a point of connection and unification between the prosperous British colonists; the colonists from all parts of North America had a common tie in what they wore because they could afford it, or, in the case of the lower classes, what they wore because they made it.  When dissatisfied with English control and English practices in and affecting the colonies, the wealthy women of colonial society were able to unify even further by choosing not to buy English wears and instead have local milliners create and produce their clothing.

Due to natural resource distributions and pre-existing wealth differences in the American colonies, certain locations were home to more affluent societies.  As displayed in the furniture and flatware of the Southern Backcountry, the Carolina Lowcountry, and the Chesapeake regions, each region had very similar tastes, but pieces were distinguished by cost and quality.  In the “Rich and Varied Culture” exhibit of the Dewitt Wallace Museum, the selection of furniture shown is comprised mostly of dark wooden tables, chairs, and chests.  Stylistically, many of the pieces look the same, but one may be made of a cheaper, lower quality wood than the other.  Typically, the pieces from the Chesapeake area, where most of the wealthy tobacco planters lived, were the most ornate and well-crafted; these pieces were most commonly made in England or other parts of Europe, showing the ability of the owners to commission or buy the pieces and pay for their journey to America.  The least ornate furniture came from the Backcountry of the deeper South; most of this furniture was made in the colonies, specifically in the Backcountry, meaning that the purchasers most likely either made the pieces themselves or bought them from local craftsmen.  Because it was those who could not afford higher quality furniture whose furniture came locally, it was an act of political defiance when a wealthy, gentry member of society bought furniture from their region instead of from the English.  In the decades leading up to the American Revolution, gentry of the Chesapeake who disagreed with actions of the British or the British royal governors reacted by spending their money within the colonies.  Though this did not immediately cause the bankrupture of England, it served as a symbolic action against the English policies and a point of commonality between the upper classes and the lower classes, who bought colonial goods because they could not afford English.

Chest of drawers from the Chesapeake region.  Item on display at Dewitt Wallace Museum.

Chest of drawers from the Chesapeake region. Item on display at Dewitt Wallace Museum.

 

 

Chest of drawers from the Backcountry region.  Item on display at Dewitt Wallace Museum.

Chest of drawers from the Backcountry region. Item on display at Dewitt Wallace Museum.

Though separated by divisions of class, the majority of the colonists in the Virginia Colony were agricultural workers.  The cash crop of the seventeenth century was tobacco, and those who were able to come to Virginia and plant it were assured a life of hard, toiling labor and profit.  By the eighteenth century, tobacco was not as profitable as it had been a generation before because of the vast expansion of the market as well as the depletion of the soil; yet, still, most planters in Virginia and the other Chesapeake colonies continued to grow the weed.  Those whose families had earned huge profits from the sale of tobacco in earlier generations were included in the “FFV,” the First Families of Virginia, another name for the most elite in society.  Yet, most tobacco farmers were not in the FFV; most were subsistence farmers, trying to earn enough revenue to pay their debts.  Even though tobacco farmers came from various backgrounds of wealth and status, they were all affected by the drop in the price of tobacco.  When London stockpiled enormous amounts of tobacco, the tobacco industry in the Chesapeake turned on its head.    Because London already had previously bought so much tobacco, which keeps for years, farmers had few customers.  Planters were no longer able to earn money off of the once labeled “miracle weed;” the tobacco currency dropped in value, and debts rose dramatically.  Poorer farmers could not afford to pay their debts to investors and richer farmers did not want to lose money on their crop by selling it at a low value.  Some turned to other agricultural products, but many stored their tobacco leaves and refused to sell them to the British for a fraction of what the plant had been worth the year before (Holton, “Nonexportation,” 109).  To aid the reduced planters, county courts shut down to prohibit investors from suing indebted farmers (Holton, “Nonexportation,” 121).  By enacting nonexportation, colonists were able to artificially drive up the price of their cash crop and force English cooperation (Holton, “Nonexportation,” 113).  In halting tobacco trade with England, the Chesapeake colonies banded together against a common enemy in the English and waited out the tobacco market.

On the eve of the American Revolution, colonists were purchasing and consuming outside goods, regardless of their need for such goods.  The power of knowing the brands were from London and want swayed the colonists’ opinions and caused many to buy lavish, expensive English goods, but the power of dissent against the English also caused many to stop buying goods from the English and instead manufacture their own necessities, live without such goods, or, if available, purchase goods from a local merchant.  The buying preferences of the American colonists on the eve of the Revolution were a method of displaying the identity of individual colonists, and uniting colonists either with other colonists or with the motherland, England.

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