Saturday, November 25, 2006

Inventories of Desire

Today’s chapter of T. H. Breen's The Marketplace of Revolution tells us all we need to know about the drastic economic change that occurred in the colonies in the mid-1700’s. Breen paints a portrait of colonists who, for some unknown reason, suddenly developed a severe addiction to imported British goods in the 1740’s. This addiction played right into the hands of royal officials who strove to keep the colonies economically dependant on the mother country as a means of controlling them politically.

The result, oddly, was the exact opposite. As the colonies grew economically, they actually gained power, which they used to their advantage in the 1760’s in the form of non-importation agreements – a movement that slowly grew into armed revolt. The conclusion is clear: the drastic influx of imported British goods that flooded the colonies in the 1740’s was a crucial event that eventually lead to the founding of our country.

In this chapter Breen meticulously guides us through the six major methods of studying the economic activity of time period…


Travel journals of the time reveal that seemingly all colonists were engaged in the intense devouring of imported British goods.

One quite famous one written by the Scottish physician Alexander Hamilton (no relation to the future country’s first Treasury Secretary) relates a 1744 tale of encountering a lower class family living off the Hudson River in a small cottage. The humble abode was gaudily decorated with fine British imports, illustrating that even simple country folk were possessed by the British import demon.

Another journal, from 1750, by Gottlieb Mittelberger, who traveled to Pennsylvania to assess the possibility of establishing a new German settlement, states, “Throughout Pennsylvania, both men and women dress according to English fashion.” And continues, saying that if British women saw bonnets worn by the colonial women, “they would want them for themselves.”

Writers almost uniformly convey this phenomenon, sometimes taking it to comically hyperbolic levels, as did William Eddis of Annapolis in the 1770’s: “The quick importation of fashions from the mother country is really astonishing. I am almost inclined to believe that a new fashion is adopted earlier by the polished and affluent American than by many opulent persons in the great metropolis.”


Royal governors were required to submit reports to British officials describing and analyzing local economic behavior. The language they used reveals their sinister intentions to keep the colonies dependant on British imports.

Here are the words of New York’s 1705 royal governor, Lord Cornbury: “These Colloneys, which are but twigs belonging to the Main Tree ought to be kept entirely dependant upon and subservient to England... For the consequence will be that if once they can see they can cloathe themselves, not only comfortably but handsomely too, without the help of England, they who are not already fond of submitting to government would think of putting in execution designs they had long harbored in their breasts.” – a startling prediction made seventy years before the official instigation of military violence.

New York’s 1774 Governor William Tyron was confident about the colonists’ dependency on British imports: “more than Eleven Twelfths of the Inhabitants of this Province both in the necessary and ornamental parts of their dress are cloathed in British Manufactures…”

As did Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor of 1763, Francis Fauquier: “the quantity [of imports] is now so great and increases so fast, that it is now almost beyond a doubt that it exceeds in value the tobacco exported.”

Most governors gleefully trash-talked colonial manufacturing. One example comes in 1768, from the Royal Governor of New Jersey, William Franklin (and son of Benjamin): “A Glass House was erected about 20 years ago in Salem County, which makes bottles, and a very course Green Glass for windows, used only in some of the houses of the poorer sort of people.”


Museums containing relics of the time period show that we find the same products - bowls, cups, plates - in every colony. North and South, though very culturally and religiously different, were united by the fact that they purchased and used the same goods.

There is, of course, the “risk of survival”, that families were more likely to keep expensive goods, and they are therefore more likely to appear in a museum, which is why we turn to colonial trash pits. Every colonial family, rich or poor, white or black, had a family trash pit. Trash pit excavations confirm that all colonists – rich or poor, country-folk or city-dwellers – were engaged in the mass consumption of British goods.


Inventories of colonists’ estates also confirm that the dramatic economic shift of the 1740’s. They almost uniformly show that colonists possessed significantly more British imports after the 1730’s, in both rural and urban areas.


The mid-eighteenth century also saw a dramatic increase in the number of newspaper publications, and in these publications, an increase in the number of advertisements for imported British goods. In 1720, only 3 weekly published newspapers existed in America. By 1760, there were 22. These journals mostly reprinted articles and essays that first appeared in the British press, and they usually avoided controversial issues such as disagreements between royal governors and colonial legislatures.

The advertisements serve as a useful tool for discovering what was being sold. Before the 1750’s, advertisements were generally small, one-column pieces. A decade later, it was not uncommon to find two-column advertisements outlining long lists of items, sometimes running into the hundreds. By the eve of revolution, sometimes an ad would fill an entire page. After 1760 - space for advertisements usually equaled or exceeded the space for news.

Breen carefully compares various publications. Let’s look sat the numbers…

In New York City, in the 1720’s and 30’s, usually no more than 5 or 6 British goods would appear per issue. By the 1770’s, between 350 and 1000 unique items were advertised per issue.

The South-Carolina Gazette of 1733 had an average of 50 British goods advertised per issue. The 1773 paper averaged around 400.

The Pennsylvania Gazette of 1733 advertised about 10 British goods per issue. In 1773, the number had risen to around 400.

There was also a much wider array of items. 1740’s advertisements merely advertised “paper”. Ads of the 1760s showed 17 varieties of paper: Demy Paper, Post Paper, Writing Paper, Vellum Paper. Strangely, the same choices emerged in all the colonies at approximately the same time.


We can also look to the Inspector-General of Imports and Exports, a post created in 1696 for the purpose of keeping “a particular, distinct, and true account of the importations and exportations of all commodities into and out of this kingdom.”

In these reports, we find some very specific statistics…

In the mid 1740’s, Great Britain exported 871,658 pounds worth of goods to America. By the 1760s, that figure rose 130%. In Pennsylvania, there was a 380% jump from the 1740’s to the 1760’s. New England doubled imports during the same time period.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, America received a mere 5.7% of all exported British goods. By 1773, the number had risen to 26%. Estimates show that by mid-century, colonists purchased half of Britain’s exported ironware, and three-quarters of their exported nails.

Some of this behavior could be attributed to population growth – which rose from 250,888 in 1700 2,148,076 in 1770. However, a look at the customs records shows that between 1742 and 1770, per capita consumption of British goods rose 50%.

Much evidence of economic change, but so far the only explanation for the shift comes from a 1753 article in the New York newspaper, Independent Reflector, which analyzed the economic change as a result of King George’s War.

We do, however, get a revealing explanation from Benjamin Franklin as to why the colonies were unable to excel at developing a manufacturing community: “Manufactures are founded in poverty. It is the multitude of poor without land in a country, and who must work for others at low wages or starve, that enables undertakers to carry on a manufacture.”

In other words, the people of America were too prosperous to be willing to submit themselves to the wage slavery of the manufacturing industry. Interesting analysis from a man who would help found the country that later heralded the Gilded Age…


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