Materialism and Symbolism: Imported Goods in the Colonies on the Eve of Revolution

During the late 17th to mid 18th century, the thirteen American colonies were expanding in their population, size, and wealth. Massive tobacco plantations and widespread land speculation in Virginia led to a sudden growing population of those with excess money and a desire to show it. Consumerism and the desire for imported and manufactured goods was on the rise in this period, however as the tensions began to grow between the colonies and England’s ever-tightening mercantilist hold over them, the colonies began to rebel against the English authority by using manipulating their materialistic tendencies against the crown. Through the period immediately preceding the American Revolution, material goods and the importation and exportation of those goods were used in new ways, firstly as a political power chip and secondly as symbols of ideas and metaphorical concepts as opposed to their strictly material uses.

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In the new consumerist culture rich with imports from England, a plethora of fabrics, fashions, and goods became available and dispersed in the colonies. Photo taken by myself.

As the wealth of the population grew and the standard of living steadily rose, there developed a heightened demand for consumer goods, specifically those imported from England. For those with the money to spend on luxuries and conspicuous consumption, importing things from Europe such as household goods, supplies like stone or brick for home design and décor (Nelson House tour), or detailed Mantua dresses were visible symbols of wealth and status (Colonial Williamsburg shop tour). Even those of lesser income were becoming more prone to purchasing goods at stores rather than making the goods themselves. Things that were once entirely out of the question for production in the home, such as vibrant or diverse fabrics and leatherwear, were now easily available in all “quality, collours, patterns, and fashions” (Martin, 203). The colonists enjoyed the availability of imported, manufactured goods, however there was a slowly growing resentment of the English control of their trade. In the mercantile economy, American manufacturing and industry was severely stunted and prevented from expanding into markets other than those of England and the American farmers and tradesmen were quickly noticing that their society’s sudden reliance on imported goods was not working in their favor.

The leading point of tension surrounding the importation of goods that the colonists had become accustomed to were the numerous regulations and taxes being placed on the colonies from the King. England’s objective was to preserve the mercantilist structure of their economic relation with the colonies and attempt to maintain control over the colonies’ exports and imports. Americans were, in many cases, forbidden from manufacturing many different commonplace goods and materials, such as ceramics and glass, and instead being forced to rely solely on imports from Britain. However, as the regulations grew, some adventurous merchants and craftsmen began their own underground businesses to create the goods that would otherwise be purchased from England (Poor potter tour). These businesses, while small in nature, helped add fuel to the flame of colonial indignation against England that was growing steadily with each new act. In addition to running illegal businesses to rebel against English regulations, the colonists also soon developed the idea of a boycott, or non-consumption. The colonists found that “through the denial of consumer goods,” they were able to obtain a political voice and recognition by the English government in a way they had not been able to before the current zeitgeist of consumerism and materialism  (Breen, 92). Non-consumption was not always successful; for instance, the attempt at resisting via non-consumption during the Townshend Acts ultimately proved useless and accomplished very little (Breen, 91). However, it was through the denial of imported goods that the American colonists began to forge a sense of control over their own consumerism and, by extension, a sense of being able to actively fight back against the English laws and taxes being suddenly and gratuitously imposed upon them.

In a subtle yet bold act of rebellion, several sheep were kept in the colonies to provide wool despite strict laws against them to preserve England's control of wool distribution to the colonies

In a subtle yet bold act of rebellion, several sheep were kept in the colonies to provide wool despite strict laws against them that were made in order to preserve England’s control of wool distribution to the colonies. Photo taken by myself

But consumer goods and the eventual denial of those goods were not strictly used by colonists to solely represent the objects themselves. It was in this period that the objects being imported from England and the objects manufactured or owned at home began to develop a symbolic purpose rather than a simply economic one. During the events of the Boston Tea Party, organized by the Sons of Liberty, over 340 chests holding nearly 45 tons of tea was thrown overboard into the Boston Harbor in retaliation to the Tea Act, yet another disliked tax imposed on the colonies. However, this act and the reasoning for it can be viewed on a deeper level then simply colonial dissent and violent resistance. Tea was a staple of English culture and something that was widely adopted by the colonies as it became readily accessible through importation. During the events of December 16th, 1773, it can be said that the tea that was thrown overboard was symbolic of the colonies (or at least the Sons of Liberty) attempting to rid themselves of English influence through the destruction of an item so strongly associated with England. During non-consumption, things such as cloth also gained a symbolic element to them, with “homespun” materials being produced once again in the home instead of being purchased in stores (Breen, 90). The colonists used the homespun material as a symbol of their refusal to be submissive to British rule and regulation. While the materials they were making were arguably inferior to those that could have been purchased in markets or imported from England, it was the nationalistic symbolism associated with it that gave homespun fabrics their return into colonists’ lives.

The usage by Americans of consumer goods as not only a political power but as symbol of ideas and ideologies still continues to this day. It can be seen in many different aspects of modern day life, such as boycotts of companies or corporations whose owners make their controversial views public. In a much larger national issue, it can be often seen that gun rights groups or activists against gun control regulations use the concept of a gun as a symbol of their rights as Americans, rather than focusing on the actual usage of the item. In these ways, the ideas and methods first implemented by colonists in the creation of the nation are still very much alive and continue to be used in modern politics and social discussions.

In the period of heightened tensions between the American colonies and England immediately preceding the revolution, consumerism and material goods were prevalent through the colonies and played a large role in the politics of the time. Through non-consumption and the secret manufacture of illegal goods, the colonists were able to work against the increasing English laws and taxes being created to preserve England’s mercantilist relationship with the colonies. It was also in this period that consumer goods became used a symbols of the colonies’ rebellion and could be used to represent more than the objects were technically worth, which is a political strategy still commonly used in modern day.

“Boston Tea Party.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 29 July 2014.

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