February 6

GUEST CURATOR: Declan Dunbar

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (February 6, 1772).

“IRISH LINNENS.”

This advertisement is about an item that many colonists purchased in the years before the American Revolution. Colonists imported Irish linens as part of what we now call the consumer revolution. In “Baubles of Britain,” T.H. Breen describes how many American colonists sought goods imported from the British Isles as part of the consumer revolution.[1] Those goods, including linens imported from England, Scotland, and Ireland, gave them a sense of camaraderie with Britain at a time when most colonists were proud to be subjects of the British Crown. In “The British Linen Trade with the United States in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” N.B. Harte states, “[T]he American colonies up to the revolution provided the bulk of the export market for English linens. It is difficult to dis-entangle re-exports of Scottish and Irish linen through London and exports of English Linen.”[2] In this advertisement, William Beatty declared that he imported Irish linens “from the Manufacturers at BELFAST, in the North of Ireland” as part of the larger market that connected the British Isles and the American colonies.

Not only did American colonists depend on England, Scotland, and Ireland as a source of linens at the time, British merchants depended on the colonies as customers and a main source of their income as well. When the colonists first started to rebel against the British, one of the first items they boycotted was linen and other fabrics from overseas in favor of homespun cloth made in the colonies. The colonists wanted to show Britain how resilient they were, but they also believed that hurting the profits of British merchants would cause them to demand that Parliament repeal duties on imported goods. Colonists used decisions about buying imported linens as economic leverage to achieve political goals. Linens, although they might seem insignificant, contributed a great deal to the economy and were part of the American Revolution.

**********

ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Declan explores some of the major themes from my Revolutionary America class.  We examine several kinds of protests from the period, including petitions by colonial assemblies, nonimportation agreements by colonial merchants, and demonstrations by colonizers.  We situate nonimportation and nonconsumption agreements within the context of the consumer revolution.  Despite the sense of British identity and close ties to Britain that colonizers experienced when they participated in a transatlantic consumer revolution, that did not prevent them from using trade as a political tool when they believed that Parliament infringed on their rights by imposing duties on certain imported goods.  Although colonizers in America did not benefit from direct representation in Parliament, British merchants did. American colonizers hoped that if they disrupted the marketplace then British merchants would join them in demanding that Parliament repeal the objectionable import duties.

Textiles became an important political symbol in the colonies.  Colonizers produced homespun cloth, usually not of the same quality as imported alternatives.  The quality hardly mattered compared to the symbolism of producing, purchasing, and wearing homespun.  This occurred within what Harte describes as a “dual economy” for linen in the colonies.  “[B]asic linen needs were provided outside the market by the widespread domestic production of homespun coarse linen, while the market was dominated by a range of better-quality (though still low-priced) linens imported from England, Scotland, and Ireland, and imported too from the continent of Europe (especially Germany) via London.”[3]  Embracing homespun, women participated in spinning bees.  College graduates wore suits made of homespun to ceremonies.  Consumers made choices about what to buy … and what not to buy.  All of those activities had political valences, communicating support for nonimportation agreements and opposition to Parliament.  Harte argues that linen “became the most important single commodity shipped across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century.”  That helped to make homespun a powerful symbol, especially in those years that colonizers participated in nonimportation agreements.

**********

[1] T.H. Breen, “‘Baubles of Britain’:  The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 119 (May 1988):  73-104.

[2] N.B. Harte, “The British Linen Trade with the United States in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings (1990): 19.

[3] Harte, “British Linen Trade,” 15.

Leave a Reply