- Letter Writing, Stationery Supplies, and Consumer Modernity in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World
In December 1775, Israel Angell wrote an earnest letter from amid the revolutionary siege of Boston to his brother back home. "I am afraid You Can Never Read the above lines," Angell scribbled in closing, "as They was wrote in a few minutes And with a bad Pen and poor Ink" (Angell xi). Acknowledging that his handwriting might not be legible enough to be read, Angell seemingly suggested that he wrote as much for his own sake as for his brother's, for catharsis as much as communication. He also rued the inferiority of his pen and ink, implying that he was aware of a spectrum of greater and lesser quality. Although aware, however, he did not fret over the matter, because by 1775 the use of pen and ink had become commonplace even for someone like Angell, a middling farmer and cooper from the hamlet of Johnston, Rhode Island, a few miles west of Providence. What had become commonplace could be taken for granted, no matter whether pen and ink were, in the moment, good or bad.
It had not been commonplace for very long. Born in 1740, Angell would have witnessed a transformation in consumer culture over the first 35 years of his lifetime, but his parents and grandparents would likely have noticed it more palpably, as a dramatic change from the life of their youth. Angell himself had never known anything different, since he fit squarely into the generation of American colonists that came of age between the 1740s and 1770s while experiencing a "consumer revolution"—a broad expansion in the availability of consumer goods of all sorts.1 If one looks at early American newspaper advertisements for stationery supplies like pen and ink, the notion that there was a "consumer revolution" in this era seems amply confirmed. In the Pennsylvania Gazette, for instance, nearly 1,100 advertisements peddled stationery supplies in Philadelphia between 1729 and 1796. Breaking this figure down more finely, there were 33 such ads in the 1730s, [End Page 473] 114 in the 1740s, 348 in the 1750s, and 370 in the 1760s.2 An upward trend, a significant transformation, is unmistakable. By the time Angell wrote his letter in 1775—on the cusp of political revolution and war—he and other middle-class people could take the ready availability of stationery supplies largely for granted in his home colony of Rhode Island, just as in Pennsylvania.3
To write letters in the eighteenth century nevertheless involved a complex array of one-time investments in writing equipment, as well as regular purchases of certain stationery supplies. Isaac Angell could easily write on an ordinary household table rather than spending quite a bit of money on a specialized piece of furniture—a desk—new to the eighteenth century.4 But he would have needed access to (if not to own) paper, quills, ink, sealing wax or wafers, inkpots, and penknives. An inkpot and a penknife were one-time purchases, whereas paper, quills, ink, and sealing wax or wafers would have involved more regular purchasing. The advertising trends in the Pennsylvania Gazette indicate, at the very least, that more and more Philadelphia-area retailers sought to meet perceived public demand for all these various stationery supplies.5
From the evidence of newspaper advertisements, one could argue, as the historian T. H. Breen has done quite deftly, that colonial American consumers were increasingly attracted to the status, refinement, cosmopolitanism, and modernity they associated with material goods imported from England.6 Indeed, it is an analytical truism that material objects, as well as the representation of material objects, contain and convey symbolic meanings.7 Among those symbolic meanings are social and geographical imaginaries—images of inclusion and exclusion, affiliation and antagonism, participation and suppression. In buying stationery supplies and other consumer goods, middling as well as affluent people in the American colonies were happily participating in a British empire reaching its zenith in the years before 1775, years entirely innocent, of course, of the calamity to come in the American War of Independence.
However, the litany of consumption trumpeted in early...