GUEST CURATOR: Chloe Amour
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“ABOUT TWENTY PIECES of fine IRISH LINEN, just imported in fine Order.”
This advertisement offers insight into sought-after items in colonial America, such as linens, sheeting, and other types of cloth. John Gerrish promoted textiles, many of which had symbolic importance associated with status. Networks of importing and selling textiles in colonial America added to the material culture that expanded as part of the consumer revolution. The rise of consumer society brought about universal participation by nearly all colonists, to one extent or another. Drawing on a “language of goods,” colonists could assess others based on their clothing and other possessions. Assessing social meaning focused on whether the apparel matched their character and status, especially as the importation and circulation of textiles increased and prices went down.
According to N.B. Harte in “The British Linen Trade with the United States in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” even though the “production of linen was the most widespread industrial activity in America during the colonial period … large amounts of linen were imported from across the Atlantic.” As Harte mentions, colonists produced their own linen yet at the same time remained dependent on imports from the British Isles. The linen industry suggested the potential for a break from Britain, as Americans made some their own consumer goods.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Chloe concludes with a tantalizing possibility. Drawing on discussions about economic resistance to the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and other abuses by Parliament from our Revolutionary America class, she invokes plans envisioned by colonists who wanted to establish greater commercial independence from England even if they were not yet prepared to declare political independence. In addition to new taxes and new regulations imposed by Parliament, colonists lamented an imbalance of trade with England in the late 1760s, giving them another reason to promote both production and consumption of local goods.
Yet as the advertisement Chloe selected demonstrates, colonists imported large quantities of textiles. “IRISH LINEN” was one of several sorts of fabrics up for bids at John Gerrish’s “PUBLIC VENDUE-OFFICE” in Boston. The auctioneer also listed “Cotton Checks,” “Striped Holland,” “Kersies,” “Serges,” and other kinds of imported cloth readily recognized by colonial consumers. Those who advocated for production and consumption of “domestic manufactures” thus had to overcome at least two obstacles. On the production side, they needed to expand the capacity for producing textiles. After all, colonists imported so many linens and other fabrics because they did not produce sufficient quantities themselves. On the consumption side, they needed to shift tastes away from some of the finer fabrics that denoted wealth and status. Affixing a political meaning to homespun cloth was part of that process.
Even if colonists could accomplish the latter – and they had some success in doing so, at least for short periods during particularly tense relations with Parliament – the former remained idealistic rather than practical. Editorials promoting domestic manufactures ran in newspapers throughout the colonies. Many artisans, shopkeepers, and other advertisers responded by incorporating such messages into their notices aimed at prospective customers. Yet even when consumers were willing to consider local alternatives to imported textiles, the colonies did not have the capacity to produce sufficient quantities to meet their needs. Rhetoric and reality deviated, but that did not necessarily diminish the power of the rhetoric as colonists considered their own consumer choices and assessed other for they choices they made.