HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

Consumer Societies and Commercial Expansion

This week's big question

What inferences can you draw from the sources about how commercial/material considerations were altering the way 18th-century people looked at their worlds?

Trade and luxury goods, like the silver from Peruvian mines and the rich and costly hats made from Canadian beavers, were at the heart of colonial trade from the first days of colonialism. But that was very much about colonial goods produced by Indigenous peoples and settlers that were then purchased by Europeans. This week, we explore consumer culture's emergence among settlers, and the change wealth and material goods had in their lives. As we'll see, while many people sought luxuries, big and small, and expanding wealth and markets put them more readily within reach of ordinary people, they also produced great anxieties in societies where godliness ought to have reigned over material goods, where some people considered the want of things a dangerous distraction from God.

Video Introduction

Learning outcomes

At the end of this week you should:

Questions to consider, and learning activity

Some of our previous lessons have highlighted the place of religiosity in early modern and colonial thinking. One might imagine that North American colonists were all deeply pious people unconcerned with anything but Christian Godliness. Not so, as we'll see this week as we look to the material world of an emerging consumer society. Some of this week's readings take us to commerce; others take us to sources where people comment on the world of goods and material possessions. 

The following questions are meant to help guide your discussions. You can also raise further ideas or questions of your own by considering issues related to significance, perspective, causation, continuity, or ethics.


We historians like to talk about revolutions. Sometimes these are obvious: political revolutions as occurred in places like France, America, and Haiti.  (We’ll learn more about these in the next module.)  But they’re often slower, less dramatic changes like the Agricultural Revolution. The Consumer Revolution is another example.

Historians typically mark the Consumer Revolution as beginning in Western Europe in the 17th century (and by most accounts it’s still going on!). The term points to the dramatically increased role of consumption (and of individual consumers) in the economy, and to the accompanying changes in human behaviour. Whereas medieval peasants might themselves produce, or trade for, much of what housed, fed, and clothed them, early modern people were beginning to purchase more and more essential goods. Moreover, with added wealth, more people were buying things that were not necessities: not just clothing, but beautiful clothing, not just food, but sugar and tea, and other foods that were not essential – in a word, luxuries.

If the population was increasing – as we know it was both in the colonies and following the Agricultural Revolution in Western Europe – then there would be an ever-increasing demand for an ever-increasing number of goods.  And if increasing numbers of people could be freed of the responsibility for producing their own foods, and so on, then that market might continually grow. Add in inventions of new processes and goods, innovations in production, and improvements in technology and the economy could grow dramatically. Many economists, economic historians, and historical demographers have argued that increased consumer demand explains much of the economic growth of the modern era. Other historians point out that the Consumer Revolution changed our social views on the importance of material goods. It also led us to believe that never-ending growth was not only possible but also inherently good.

Historically, this was entirely new.  Never before had more than a tiny slice of the population had income that could be expended, and even fewer still had income that could be expended on non-necessities.  Of course, this is not new to us, but much of the shape of our modern commercial world was being formed in this time period.  People have been buying and selling since long before recorded history, but the new commercial relationships were different.  The sheer range of products was hitherto unseen; their accessibility for relatively ordinary people was hitherto unknown. And wholly new social phenomena emerged. In Western Europe, for example, advertising​ was wholly unknown until about the middle of the 17th century, although not really taking off until the early 19th.

Not everyone thought this was good. Purchasing things that people didn’t need raised the spectre of luxury and the vices of avarice, immodesty, and covetousness. Christians were, in theory, unworldly people, and while that was always a relative point, the expansion of consumer purchasing increasingly raised the possibility that people were forgoing the spiritual for the material – many argued that consumption, especially of luxuries, led to sin. If many political leaders and economists (Malthus, Ricardo, Mandeville, and of course Adam Smith) saw this expansion as good, many religious leaders (a curious combination of Puritans and Roman Catholics) saw it as a road to ruin. All agreed that it was changing western society; they were simply less clear on whether it was good or bad. And some, such as Benjamin Franklin, saw value in economic growth, but still feared the vice of excess. Like his more religious fellows, he too feared that unchecked commercial gain led to excess.

Britain and France certainly led this movement toward a Consumer Revolution, though countries like Holland, Spain, and Italy were not far behind. As their agriculture activities supported a greater population, as their populations grew, as their abilities to produce more goods developed, the modern era of consumer-led capitalist expansion produced fantastic amounts of wealth, and power. Their populations, and their economies, were growing at rates never before seen in human history. So were the American colonies. We could examine the Consumer Revolution in Western Europe, but keeping with our North American focus of the past few weeks we’ll look at the British colonies of eastern North America. There we see exactly the same pattern of agricultural improvement, population growth, and economic expansion. If the economy was significantly smaller than that of most European countries, its population growth was truly impressive. By 1750 England’s population had grown to over 5 million, but it had been 3 million in 1350. By 1750, the thirteen British American colonies’ population had increased to over a million, but it had been just over 150,000 at the time of King Phillip’s War, barely 70 years earlier.  It would surpass 3 million during the American Revolution (1776-1783).

What we want to explore this week is the significance of consumer activity in colonial British America. If England was the centre of the Consumer Revolution, its colonies were not far behind, and their rapid economic and demographic expansion allowed for the development of a powerful commercial spirit to emerge in colonial British America.  Some historians have argued that America nurtured, by its very expansive nature and seemingly boundless resources, an almost natural capitalism, where buying, selling, making – in a word, commerce – was very much at the centre of all American life.  Other historians, however, have emphasized the tug of tradition – that religious and secular criticisms of the potential excesses of commercial exchanges were always at play, creating a tension between economic growth and the spiritual life of a pious people.

Our readings for this week take us to discrete locations within that world of early America.  It was a world where men and women like Eliza Lucas strove for economic expansion, and where Ben Franklin urged economic security but also some form of moral restraint. It was a world where James and Anne Pollard acquired over their lifetimes a remarkable, and valuable, inventory of things. Like all worlds, it was a place where people observed, and learned. Read the diary of young Philip Vickers Fithian, a recent Princeton graduate and then a tutor to a wealthy Virginia family when he wrote the diary. The letter describes his new employment situation, and the diary entries record his observations on life in an elite Virginia household in the week around Christmas 1773.  There are certainly interesting observations here about slave life on the eve of the American Revolution – the moment Americans declared that “All men are created equal” – but for now we’d like you to think about how these documents help us gain a window on material life in colonial British North America. Fithian’s documents can’t tell us what everybody thought, but we can draw inferences from them, that is, we can get a good sense of the privileged world of his employers as well as something of what he admired and valued.

Eastern British America was increasingly less a settler society, and more a settled society. Though the expansion of the frontier continued – and with it wars with Indigenous peoples and the French – for an increasing number of families life was becoming less about the basic struggle to survive and more about an engagement with new modes of being.  This is, to be clear, a select view. Whether we turn our attention to the dockworkers and housemaids of Boston, the yeomen farmers of backwoods New York and Massachusetts, or the slaves of Virginia and Carolina plantations, this expanded view was not yet within their reach. But for an increasing number of people in colonial America, the world of purchased goods came to play an ever-greater role in their lives. Let’s examine something of the nature of everyday commercial and consumer activity in colonial British America in the mid-18th century.


This week's Toolbox entry introduces you to an important skill related to thinking historically: drawing inferences

Inferences are the best guesses that we can make, based on the available evidence. They are necessary, because we NEVER have complete and perfect knowledge of the past. In fact, most of our knowledge of the past is based on very fragmentary evidence. Like detectives, historians have to collect whatever evidence they can in the search for answers to questions that interest them, and once they collect the evidence they have to piece its meaning together like judges or storytellers.

How do you make strong inferences as opposed to plain and flimsy guesses? You use the skills of source analysis that we learned about in Module 1: close reading, corroboration, sourcing, and contextualization.

Before you post to the Forum this week, make sure you review these skills, and when you post you should try to practice making strong inferences. 

Primary sources

Secondary sources


Supplementary Reading (not required, but may be of interest to some of you!)

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