- The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America by Jennifer Van Horn
Material goods mattered to the elite citizens of eighteenth-century British America. Jennifer Van Horn's book explores how material objects from portraits and dressing tables to gravestones and wooden legs allowed colonists to form aesthetic communities based on shared sensibilities and patronage networks, communicate their identities transatlantically, and develop a civil society. Van Horn draws from a broad range of sources including prints and paintings, artifacts, period documents, and literature. Elites in major colonial port cities "used things to refine themselves and, by so doing, created personas that enabled them to enter into the relationships with one another that constituted civil life. . . . Ultimately, elites' assemblages of artifacts enabled them to extend their local communities outward to forge a collective [End Page 99] identity as a nation of citizens" (pp. 9–10). Just as importantly, these elites were also anxious to distinguish themselves from "the threatening counterexamples provided by Native Americans and African Americans" (p. 21). Drawing her view of the nature and development of civil society from John Locke, Van Horn builds on previous studies of refinement, civil society, and savagery by David Shields, John L. Brooke, Homi Bhabha, Norbert Elias, and Richard Bushman.
The book includes an introduction, six chapters, an epilogue, 130 illustrations, and ten plates. The first half of the book focuses on the aesthetic communities created in colonial ports around the mid-eighteenth century; the second half explores these aesthetic communities during the imperial crisis, the Revolution, and afterward.
One of the strongest chapters examines the monumental prints of colonial port cities. Urban prospects glorifying the tamed and civilized colonial landscape were partly driven by notions of American inferiority, which were fueled by the frequently republished claims of French naturalist Comte de Buffon, who claimed that indigenous American species were smaller and weaker than their European counterparts due to a dearth of cleared land.
Other chapters focus on the portraits that London-trained artist John Wollaston painted in Philadelphia; Charleston's portrait gravestones; images depicting masquerades; women's dressing furniture; and the wooden leg used by American statesman Gouverneur Morris. Van Horn argues that elites in colonial port cities redefined the role of representation to suit their own circumstances, and that Charleston's portrait gravestones helped the dead maintain politeness after they had passed. Later in the century, depictions of masquerades "simultaneously awakened and assuaged anxiety surrounding colonists' temporary suspension in their relationship with Great Britain," and dressing tables, along with tea tables and their equipage, "became part of a constellation of goods that women used to assert their political power in the eighteenth century" (pp. 28, 296).
While The Power of Objects is provocative and engagingly written, the author occasionally stretches her evidence to fit her argument. [End Page 100] Gouverneur Morris's prosthesis resembled "a piece of wearable upholstered furniture" that helped camouflage his physical deformity, but it also allowed him to blend into the stylistically similar wooden furniture legs in refined Philadelphia parlors (p. 363). Similarly, the author asserts that the unknown cabinetmaker who crafted this turned wooden prosthesis made a conscious decision to visually connect Morris's artificial limb to high-style furniture, thereby demonstrating his status. More than likely, however, the leg was made by an artisan who simply drew upon the materials and techniques he was most familiar with: those used for making and upholstering furniture (pp. 360–61). Still, these are relatively minor issues in a deeply researched book that is full of wonderful surprises. On balance, Jennifer Van Horn's exploration of material goods in British America remains an important contribution to the literature dealing with the material world.
GABRIELLE M. LANIER is professor and interim head of the department of history at James Madison University, where she also directs the public history program. She is the author of The Delaware Valley in the Early Republic: Architecture, Landscape, and Regional Identity (2005...