- A New Nation of Goods: The Material Culture of Early America
Material culture, Consumerism, New England
A New Nation of Goods is the latest contribution to a growing body of scholarship dedicated to American material life from the 1790s to the 1850s. David Jaffee's new book documents the material objects and creators that together worked as agents of change, driving the cultural and material transformations that paved the way for mass consumption before the Civil War. Focusing on New England towns in Massachusetts and Connecticut, the author richly details how, like their urban counterparts, Americans living in the hinterlands had serious material aspirations that were fulfilled by a group of talented local artisans.
Each sprawling chapter begins with a different object, moving us through time, generations, and significant market transformations. The book opens with a deep analysis of two eighteenth-century portrait paintings of the Ebenezer Devotions Sr. and Jr., illustrating the shifts in education, religion, craftsmanship, cultural authority, and regional culture from one generation to the next. The paintings depict the intellectual authority of the clergyman and its displacement by the economic authority of the ascendant merchant, the father's extensive library in the background of his portrait replaced by a quill pen and open account book in the foreground of his son's portrait.
The following chapter on the "Village Enlightenment" documents [End Page 335] these shifts in greater detail. The object lesson here is Marlborough, Massachusetts resident Silas Felton's Franklinesque manuscript autobiography, which, among other things, expresses his keen desire to read books all day, rejecting the life of farming into which he was born. For ambitious young men, the country's increasing access to print exposed them to new ideas that were themselves agents of cultural change and inspired their readers, already primed and anxious for new experiences, to be the agents of change through the production and consumption of consumer goods. This "new group of lesser lights, the rising men and women of the post-Revolutionary gentry," according to Jaffee, were "eager to engage in the project of improving their persons, their houses, and their villages" (96).
The process of "cultural integration and hybridization" (145) that took place in newly "cosmopolitan communities" could not have been possible without material adaptation and invention. Clocks perhaps best exemplify the transformation of consumer goods during this time. Finely crafted precision objects that occupied valuable domestic real estate, tall case clocks were the ultimate status symbols in upper-class households. By the first decades of the nineteenth century, artisan-entrepreneurs such as Eli Terry fundamentally changed their design, exchanging expensive brass workings for standardized wooden parts, assembling them using efficient divisions of labor, and making them mantle-sized to accommodate more modest household budgets and the logistical needs of the people who peddled them.
Indeed, itinerant peddlers' ability to easily transport clocks (and tin-ware, books, and "fancy goods") was crucial to their commercial success. "Itinerants," Jaffee writes, "were at the center of the process of commercialization, facilitating the shift from local exchange, fostering the expansion of production in the countryside, and expanding the role of commodities in everyday life" (157). Peddlers distributed more widely the production of rural artisans and brought into the hinterlands products from cities that came from across the Atlantic. Itinerants encouraged their customers to consume beyond necessities, educated them about the latest fashions, and "promoted the transforming properties of goods" (157).
In order to meet consumer demand, craftsmen applied manufacturing efficiencies to their work to increase production and offer a choice of styles and prices. In the case of clocks and furniture, basic parts were standardized, fashioned by far-flung makers and assembled under one [End Page 336] roof. Chairs were identical but for seat caning and scrollwork on their wooden backs. Similarly, portraitists drew from regular principles of geometry and were aided by drafting tools. They added custom embellishments and design flourishes to individuate works and suggest the gentility of their sitters. Artisans were surprisingly prolific: Through outwork women...