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  • The "Scourge of Fashion"Political Economy and the Politics of Consumption in the Early Republic
  • Linzy A. Brekke

In the spring of 1784, Benjamin Franklin penned a letter to his friend Benjamin Vaughan. Instead of addressing Vaughan's concerns over the spending free-for-all he observed following the wake of American independence, Franklin, as he was wont to do, told a story.1 The story went like this: "The skipper of a ship, employed between Cape May, New Jersey and Philadelphia, had done us some small service, for which he refused payment. My wife, understanding that he had a daughter, sent her, as a present, a new-fashioned cap. Three years later, this skipper being at my house, with an old farmer of Cape May, his passenger, he mentioned the cap, and how much his daughter had been pleased with it; "but," says he, "it proved a dear cap to our Congregation." "How so?" "When my daughter appeared in it at meeting, it was so much admired, that all the girls resolved to get such caps from Philadelphia; and my wife and I computed that the whole could not have cost less than an hundred pounds." "True," says the farmer, "but you do not tell all the story; I think the cap was nevertheless an advantage to us; for it was the first thing that put our girls upon knitting worsted mittens for sale at Philadelphia, that they might have wherewithal to buy such caps and ribands and you know that that inducement has continued, and is likely to continue and increase to a much greater value. . . . Upon the whole I was reconciled by this little piece [End Page 111] of luxury, since, not only the girls were made happier by having fine caps, but the Philadelphians, by the supply of warm mittens."2

Franklin shared this parable with Vaughan to explain his vision for the role of commerce and the market in postrevolutionary America. The fantasy of an agrarian republic humming with household production and local consumption was shared by many of his contemporaries.3 But there was a serpent lurking in the garden of the early republic—the urban and urbane fashionable lace cap. It tells a different kind of story, one of a new nation embroiled in economic distress, consumer spending, social competition, and an increasingly important fashion system.4 Franklin, like many of his contemporaries across the Atlantic, justified a "little luxury" because it engendered work, and household work at that, but he ignored the real divisiveness and social competition his wife's gift had generated.5

Franklin's story participates in three issues that came to a head in the years following independence: the first revolved around postwar economic crisis and the role "luxury" goods (increasingly defined simply as any foreign import) played in said crisis; second, the question regarding which structures of political economy would best organize economic life and, by extension, the nature of the republic itself; and lastly, the way material goods mediated social relationships. [End Page 112]

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Figure 1.

Lace cap with lappets, Brussels, Belgium, 1740–1750. Franklin sent lace and other dress goods to his wife Deborah from London in 1766. According to Colonial Williamsburg costume curator, Linda Baumgarten, this lace cap may have been similar to the one Deborah wore in Philadelphia. Source: Colonial Williamsburg Collection, collection of Marian Powys, 1953–187.

The Crisis of the Consumer Revolution

In the realm of consumer goods, clothing was especially important due to its visibility, necessity, and economic worth. Textiles served as a unique source of wealth for individuals and families and they were carefully bequeathed to successive generations, surviving in chair covers, pillows, and quilts long after their usefulness as apparel had worn out. The color, fit, texture, and quality of cloth conveyed messages about status, occupation, gender, wealth, and age as well as individual personal characteristics such as modesty (or the lack thereof), sexuality, religious orientation, and urbanity. The emergence of new and expanding forms of consumerism in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world threatened to upend the clarity of sartorial communication. Marked by a rising trend toward copious and conspicuous clothing consumption...


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