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The Consumer Revolution

"The Dinner: Symptoms of Eating and Drinking," engraved by W. Dickenson after Henry Banbury, London, 1794.The differences between the ways people lived during the Middle Ages and those in the period just before the American Revolution are almost unimaginable to modern, comfort-loving Americans. What caused this dramatic change in lifestyles and standards of living? Many factors combined to make new consumer goods available to nearly everyone in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Incomes were rising, so more people had more money left over after they acquired the bare necessities. The impulse to acquire these newfangled consumer goods was not a case of simple human nature. The pre-modern world differed in how wealth and status were expressed. Traditionally, money was invested in farmland, a house, herds and flocks, and laborers. While items of beauty and utility might inspire envy and otherwise attract admiration at any time in human history, the new consumer goods were something new under the sun. Teapots, books, forks, and dancing ability had little or no intrinsic value; their worth lay in what they could communicate about the people who owned them and those individuals’ reliance on appearance and behavior—their own and other people’s.

Although historians are still struggling to define the relationship between supply and demand, it is clear that mechanization, the factory system, faster and less expensive transportation, and the Industrial Revolution were all preceded by the phenomenon we call the “consumer revolution.” The term refers to the total revision of expectations.

Why this new demand? As society became more mobile, houses, land, and livestock alone no longer communicated social rank. By the end of the seventeenth century, ordinary men and women began to demand consumer goods that indicated their status.

In the eighteenth century, more and more people in Europe and the colonies desired goods and services that would have been unimaginable a few decades before. Consumption and display went well beyond basic human needs for a warm place to sleep and food on the table. People wanted fashionable, portable, status-bearing goods. Embroidered waistcoats, card tables, sets of carved chairs, and services of china plates and silver forks communicated their owners’ rising standard of living and their style and worth.

Items that once were considered luxuries reserved for the highest ranks began to “trickle down” to common households in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Consequently, owning such things no longer elevated the well-to-do above their inferiors. The elite responded by seeking new status symbols to differentiate themselves from the clamoring horde. The middling and poorer sorts—and occasionally even slaves—kept up as best they could.

Each group sought to stay ahead of the folks below, so the wheel of changing fashion turned faster and faster. Gradually, as the latest commodities became more plentiful and affordable, traditional regional folkways were forced to compete with the new internationally recognized store-bought culture. The increasingly frantic pace of change and the widening range of peoples caught up in it propelled the consumer revolution.

One way the gentry set themselves apart was by cultivating social skills and engaging in leisure activities that working people had no time to learn or practice—accomplished dancing, games of skill, tea drinking, and fine dining expressed sophistication. Using their leisure time for intellectual pursuits in literature, natural science, and other subjects, the gentry aspired to the true refinement of both their inner and outer selves. With the growing importance of these civilities came the need for even more brand-new good and services. The newest, often exclusive luxuries introduced at mid-century symbolized all that separated the highest rank of society from others. . . .

Creating One's Own Image

"The Rival Milleners," by Robert Laurie after John Collet, London, March 2, 1772.The consumer revolution that began in northern Europe soon spread to the New World. Americans in particular quickly earned a reputation for their enthusiasm for material things. “Pride of wealth is as ostentatious in this country as ever the pride of birth has been elsewhere,” an English traveler declared. Other commentators despaired that consumer extravagance had reached new extremes in the colonies.

Why were Americans reputed to be so highly materialistic? Society in North America was exceptionally fluid. Such a culturally diverse and geographically mobile population could not establish and maintain the traditional status symbols rooted in ancient lineages and hereditary rights in Britain. A never-ending stream of newcomers reinforced the colonials’ need for inexpensive, movable, and fashionable objects. Standardized consumer goods and rules for using them gave immigrants of means confidence that their rank would be recognized immediately no matter where they traveled or settled in polite society. Those who owned the “right stuff” without knowing how to use it properly gave themselves away as imposters. The new material culture divided the haves from the have-nots and the knowledgeable from the know-nothings. Traditionalists, the poor, and most slaves usually continued to practice their separate folkways.

The consumer revolution was on view everywhere in eighteenth-century Williamsburg. After all, it was the place that no less an authority than Thomas Jefferson referred to as “the finest school of manners and morals that ever existed in America.” Aspiring ladies and gentlemen wore London fashions imported by milliners Jane and Margaret Hunter, tailored by James Slate, and laundered by Ann Ashby. They learned the rules of courtesy, the art of polite conversation, the fine points of furnishing their homes, and the customs of the dinner and tea table. They participated in genteel pastimes. Fashion-conscious townsfolk attended playhouses, concerts and scientific lectures. They hired dancing masters, teachers, lawyers, doctors and other providers of specialized services.

Towns were the hotbeds of consumption, mostly because the richest people congregated there and because close contact meant that fashions spread more quickly. London was “the great metropolis” toward which all style-watchers looked, of course. At English watering places like Bath and Tunbridge Wells, the social fluidity characteristic of urban life was also notable. Despite its small size, Williamsburg shared this characteristic to some extent.

Selling Respectability: Retailing and Production

Detail of the cartouche from "A Map of the most Inhabited part of Virginia . . .," by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson, London, 1768.England established the colony of Virginia to exploit the region’s natural resources, including its agricultural products. It is no overstatement to say that Jamestown came about as an aggressively commercial venture. Like other European powers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, England followed the economic policy known as mercantilism; that is, the government wanted to increase English wealth by discouraging imports and encouraging exports.

Mercantilism proved to be a viable policy for England’s North American colonies as soon as John Rolfe introduced West Indian tobacco. Tremendous profits earned by tobacco in the European market altered the colony’s economy forever. Tobacco sales enabled Virginians to buy manufactured goods from England. Beginning in the 1660s, the Navigation Acts strengthened this trade relationship by eliminating competition since Virginians could import goods only through British merchants.  

The Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730 guaranteed the quality of tobacco and centralized its collection at inspection warehouses. An unintended side effect was the development of retail businesses throughout the colony. Merchants, particularly Scottish factors, promptly established networks of stores where tobacco was purchased and imported goods could be sold year round to customers in the neighborhood.

Once warehouses were established, a small planter did not have to sell his tobacco when the annual fleet arrived. Instead, he could use tobacco notes from the warehouses to establish credit and purchase goods at any time. The notes were readily transferable so he could bargain with several merchants at different locations. Consequently, stores sprang up everywhere. By the middle of the eighteenth century, complex distribution and credit systems had developed throughout Tidewater, Southside, and Piedmont Virginia.

Imports reflected the new ease of selling one’s tobacco crop.  In 1720, Virginia and Maryland imported £110,717 worth of British goods; by 1736—just six years after the warehouses were established—the amount had nearly doubled, reaching £204,794; and by 1763 imports had surged to £555, 391, climbing to the impressive figure of £717,782 in 1770. Or, to look at the same trade from the other side of the Atlantic, English exports roughly doubled in value between 1700 and 1750 and nearly quadrupled in the remaining years of the eighteenth century. Most of the trade was in manufactures destined for markets in North America.

Even so, the commercial system in the colonies was distinctive by about 1750. “It is possible to discern certain general characteristics that distinguished the colonial market-place at mid-century: an exceptionally rapid expansion of consumer choice, an increasing standardization of consumer behaviour and a pervasive Anglicization of the American market.”

NOTE: For more information about the use of consumer goods by people from different classes in the 1700s, see the nine “Class differences at Wetherburn’s Tavern” images at the end of the article The New Look of Old Wetherburn’s.

Source: Mark Howell, Emma L. Powers, et al. Buying Respectability: The Consumer Revolution in Colonial Virginia (Staff Resource Manual developed by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Department of Historical Research, 2000), pp. A2–A6.