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Chapter 5 Shopping Networks and Consumption as Collaboration In March 1775, Eliza Pinckney packed a trunk with limes, aprons, paper, and cloth to send to her daughter Harriott Horry. Pinckney tucked the trunk’s key into a newsy letter that reported on her labors: Jones sent me word a few days after I came to town that the stores had been serched and he could not get a bit of fine washing pavilion Gause any where; I afterwards sent old Mary with directions not to miss a store, and to let them know it was Cash, and after two or three days serch she got me some coarse stuff . . . I sent her to Cape (I am glad you mentiond him) and have got 40 yards of fine Pavilion washing gause; ’tis more than your quantity but they wont cut it and it will do to mend it. It is 15s. per yd.1 Hunting down Harriott’s gauze required a network of knowledgeable individuals: the man who scouted the scene; the trusted female slave who haunted city shops for days; the savvy daughter with good connections; and the mother who coordinated and judged their efforts. Pinckney’s description portrays shopping both as unpaid work and as a social activity that enmeshed several levels of society. The shoppers she depicted were critical and tenacious, cooperating to comb through the available goods for what they wanted. The search itself was a product of interactions between and within Charleston’s social classes and depended, to some extent, on high-born and low-born sharing a common consumer language. Pinckney’s letter, with its evidence of the collaborative and mediated nature of shopping, tells a story about consumption that few newspapers at the time acknowledged. The advertisements in the South Carolina Gazette or the Newport Mercury promised shoppers vast selection—so many goods it was “too tedious to mention” them all—with no controls over which goods would be sold to whom. Merchants were peddling a heady mixture of choice and independence, hoping to attract customers with their vision of abundant, liberating commercial life. Such tactics certainly worked on political writers, who adopted the trope of “consumer choice” as a new way to think about political power in 130 Chapter 5 America. If a consumer had the right to shop around for a better deal, they suggested, so too did a citizen contemplating the government.2 But what did “choice” mean for the people who searched for Harriott Horry’s gauze? No one in Pinckney’s depiction strode alone into a shop, armed with cash, confidence, and a sense of entitlement. Instead, her account suggests that power was spread unevenly over a consumer network made up of dependent ties. Some held the purse strings. Others performed the leg work, balancing commands and judgment. Still others provided opinions—solicited and unsolicited—about goods, shops, and money. Choice was not coiled desire, released by the right merchant, but an accumulation of advice, information, and purchasing power. Consumer networks were a practical response to the uncertainties of supply and quality in urban marketplaces. As pivotal members of these networks, skilled female shoppers of all ranks were at the center of the city’s economy, tracking and paying off debts, identifying and evaluating new financial connections. Drawing on conversations and connections with other shoppers, they perfected the economically valuable skills of comparison shopping, budgeting, and evaluation, and collected the social dividends of a job well done. Their methods and their manner were strikingly at odds with the spendthrift female shopper of Anglo-American popular culture, a frivolous creature who wasted “men’s” money and shamed her community. Critics railed against her in advice books and editorials, charging her to “strip off your trash . . . and ruin your husbands no more,” stop shopping, and “sweep out the house, d’ye hear!”3 Entertaining as such cranky diatribes were, they neither reflected nor directed actual behavior, since most urban Americans knew that shopping was serious business. What these ubiquitous tirades did reflect was the increasing presence of shopping women in the marketplace. When all of a family’s items came from the same merchant’s stores, the husband frequently made the necessary selections, though women could do so. In frontier Kentucky, for example, fathers often bought all of the goods for their families, from leather to laces.4 Beginning in the cities stocked by Atlantic trade, however , general provisioning gave way to “shopping.” The term “shopping” was new...


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