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Buying into the World of Goods

Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia

Ann Smart Martin

Publication Year: 2008

How did people living on the early American frontier discover and then become a part of the market economy? How do their purchases and their choices revise our understanding of the market revolution and the emerging consumer ethos? Ann Smart Martin provides answers to these questions by examining the texture of trade on the edge of the upper Shenandoah Valley between 1760 and 1810. Reconstructing the world of one country merchant, John Hook, Martin reveals how the acquisition of consumer goods created and validated a set of ideas about taste, fashion, and lifestyle in a particular place at a particular time. Her analysis of Hook's account ledger illuminates the everyday wants, transactions, and tensions recorded within and brings some of Hook's customers to life: a planter looking for just the right clock, a farmer in search of nails, a young woman and her friends out shopping on their own, and a slave woman choosing a looking glass. This innovative approach melds fascinating narratives with sophisticated analysis of material culture to distill large abstract social and economic systems into intimate triangulations among merchants, customers, and objects. Martin finds that objects not only reflect culture, they are the means to create it.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Studies in Early American Economy and Society from the Library Company of Philadelphia

Title Page

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Series Editor's Foreword

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pp. ix-x

This volume in the Studies in Early American Economy and Society, a collaborative effort between the Johns Hopkins University Press and the Library Company of Philadelphia's Program in Early American Economy and Society (PEAES), offers a distinctive perspective on the economic lives of very early North Americans. One of the core objectives of PEAES has...

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pp. xi-xiv

On a recent August evening in Franklin County, Virginia, vines gripped my ankles and briars scratched my face as I inched through pasture toward an abandoned house. I was in search of a fylfot, a pinwheel-like design, sighted on a decayed mantel several decades before. Such a mysterious emblem occasionally ornamented houses and furniture in the eighteenth-century...

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INTRODUCTION: In Backcountry Time

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pp. 1-10

Virginia merchant John Hook was angry. His British suppliers had disappointed him one too many times with shoddy, unfashionable goods. He lectured Whitehaven merchant Walter Chambre in a 1773 letter, explaining that their business was absolutely dependent on "dispatch, exactness, and judgement in the choise of the goods, respecting the quality...

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ONE: The Business of Revolutions: John Hook and the Atlantic World

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pp. 11-41

The busy public library in Rocky Mount, Virginia, is of interest to historians of colonial Virginia for two reasons. The first is that it is home to the Gertrude Mann Public History Room, which holds an array of local documents, including photocopies of scrawled accounts related to the business of several Franklin County merchants. The other is that it contains...

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TWO: Getting the Goods: Local Acquisition in a Tobacco Economy

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pp. 42-66

It is relatively easy to see how goods like expensive tall case clocks marked wealth, power, or, in the case of the clergy, perhaps culture or learning. Although the number of clocks owned by those in the middling ranks would rise as the end of the century approached, there were still few people who had them. If we limited our view to just such elite objects, we...

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THREE: Accounting for Life: Objects, Names, and Numbers

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pp. 67-93

In late July 1801, John F. Price spotted a man crossing the river between Bedford and Franklin counties carrying a "Sack Bag filled with something on his horse." Although he could not swear positively, witness Price some years later averred "from the shape of the article in the Bag, I have no hesitation in saying I believe they were the Books."1 The books in question...

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FOUR: Living the Backcountry: Styles and Standards

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pp. 94-144

Englishman William Eddis traveled to the backcountry of Frederick County, Maryland, in 1771. It was "impossible to conceive a more rich and fertile country," and he predicted a great future for the backcountry region. He attributed the success of the early settlement to hardy German immigrants whose "habits of industry, sobriety, frugality and patience...

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FIVE: Setting the Stage, Playing the Part: Stores as Shopping Spaces

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pp. 145-172

The precise lines of triangulation connecting merchant, customer, and artifact varied considerably and reflected the differences among the performers, the setting of the stage, and the store's location in town or country. The richest matron and the poorest slave both faced a merchant across the counter in the store. To be consumers, wives stepped free from their...

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SIX: Suckey's Looking Glass: African Americans as Consumers

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pp. 173-193

Richard Stith's slave Suckey purchased a looking glass and a ribbon at John Hook's store in February 1774. She paid for them by supplying four pounds "cotton in ye seed." When I first encountered the record of her purchase in a tiny account book, I neatly entered it into my large database of store purchases: I categorized the object as an item of "personal...

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EPILOGUE: Country Gentleman in a New Country: John Hook's Beef

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pp. 194-204

John Hook sued many people during his long mercantile career and, judging from his ultimate wealth, successfully collected debts. Yet in one case he got caught in his own snare. His ultimate fame—or infamy—resulted from bringing a case to district court in New London in which he claimed an army commissary in 1781 had illegally taken two of his steers. The...


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pp. 205-240

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 241-249

This book uses the ledgers of mercantile business activity to establish baselines of everyday consumption patterns. Such account books are some of the most neglected historical documents. Utilizing the information they easily tender—names, dates, and prices—requires the scholar's fortitude and patience. The storekeeper's language skills and writing talent not...


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pp. 251-260

Image Plates

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E-ISBN-13: 9780801898488
E-ISBN-10: 080189848X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801898266
Print-ISBN-10: 0801898269

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 12 color photos, 4 line drawings, 34 halftones
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Studies in Early American Economy and Society from the Library Company of Philadelphia