GUEST CURATOR: Patrick Keane
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“SUPERFINE broad cloths.”
Gideon Young sold imported materials at his shop that people could use to make clothing. He sold some materials that were intended for the rich (“fashionable silks”) as well as some that were not intended for the rich (“midling and coarse broad cloths”). I found it interesting that he sold at low prices so that he could bring in rich or poor people. He wanted to bring as much attention to his shop as possible; the best way was having “cheap” prices for those who lived in Providence.
On the Colonial Williamsburg website, Edward R. Crews talks about the “18th Century love of fashion and the art of making clothes.” People who bought these materials from Young could then bring them to a milliner to make the clothing for them. Some of the colonists who bought from Young might use the materials to make fancy clothing. Young wanted to appeal to the lower class by having lower prices so that they too could make their own clothes that could also look fancy.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Who were Gideon Young’s customers? As Patrick notes, they could have included colonists from a variety of backgrounds. Young stocked some textiles that would have appealed to genteel gentlemen and ladies as well as others more likely to be purchased by the middling and lower sorts. By offering low prices, he invited all sorts of potential customers to visit his shop.
That Young attempted to cater to different kinds of clients demonstrates a tension that emerged as the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century expanded to include greater numbers of colonists. Products and fashions that had once been reserved for the elite increasingly became more widely accessible as the number of imported goods rose and prices fell. Affluent colonists engaged in conspicuous consumption as a means of continuing to distinguish themselves from their social subordinates. However, even as the elite bought more and more things, other colonists purchased what they could afford and engaged in their own acts of displaying their possessions – and their good taste – to others.
Young certainly wanted to make his customers feel special when he offered “fashionable silks” and “best black sattins, pelong, and alamode.” Yet he balanced a sense of exclusivity against “cheap” prices that suggested that not everyone who visited his shop on Union Street came from the upper echelons of Providence residents.
If all sorts of colonists could buy “fashionable” and “best” goods with all the “trimmings to suit” for low prices from shopkeepers like Young, how could the elite assert their status? A rise in concern for manners as well as attention to personal comportment accompanied the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century. Colonists concentrated on demonstrating their gentility through their actions and interactions with others rather than relying solely on their possessions to testify to their status. In such cases, the clothes did not, by themselves, make the man (or woman). Appearances and possessions were not enough to claim social status. Colonists who wanted to claim a place among the genteel also needed to exhibit politeness and demonstrate that they understood refined rules for social interactions.