Segment from Counter Culture

Revolutionary Spirit

Peter calls up his buddy Tim Breen to talk about one of most revolutionary acts that the American colonies carried out against Mother England: widespread boycotts of British-made goods. The hosts discuss the merits of the case Peter and Tim lay out—that our shopping culture dates back to colonial times.

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NOTE: The following transcript corresponds to an earlier version of this show. Some passages may not match the rebroadcast audio above.

PETER: So as you know, I’m the guy who covers America’s early years on this show. And I have been sitting here biting my lip for the past half hour listening to you guys go on and on and on about how shopping didn’t really become a thing until the last couple of decades of the 19th century. Well, now it’s my turn. And so I’m going to play for you a little conversation I recorded the other day with a friend of mine in Vermont.

Hey, Tim, you there?

TIM BREEN: Hey, Peter. Can you hear me?

PETER: Yeah, I can.

This is Tim Breen, who has studied consumerism in the colonial era. I called him to help me make the case to you two that a culture of shopping in America started much earlier.

TIM BREEN: Well, I’ll be glad to correct their erroneous thinking, Peter.

PETER: Good.

TIM BREEN: As far a robust consumer market open to ordinary people, in other words, a large market, that is clearly a mid-18th century phenomenon. In the middle of the 18th century, England was able, through greater efficiency of maybe traditional outsourcing, to create a huge amount of consumer goods, largely household goods. We’re talking here about metal goods, knives, ceramics, glassware, and most important, Peter, in this new, really vibrant consumer market of the mid-18th century, cloth. The statistics are basically that 50% of all English exports went to the North American colonies. And of that 50%, Peter, 50% of that was factory-made textiles.


TIM BREEN: And that was all new. There’s no question. And we’re talking about a mass market here.

PETER: So hold on for a minute here, Tim. My colleagues are going to say, is this hyperbole? Are we exaggerating just a little bit? I mean, OK, some high-end consumers are able to get fancy cloth from Britain.

TIM BREEN: Well, look, throughout recorded history the richest people, kings and queens and popes and whatnot, have been able to be consumers.

PETER: That’s what they’re there for, right?

TIM BREEN: Yeah, right. And so they want spices from the Indies, and all that sort of thing.

PETER: Yeah.

TIM BREEN: What’s the new trend, and there’s no question statistically that this happened, was the opening up of a market that was accessible to what I’m going to call ordinary people. And what England achieved was not only the capacity to make the goods that people wanted, they created patterns of distribution and credit that were new and extraordinarily effective.

You or a family member would go into a store and you’d say, man, oh, I really– oh, that cloth over there. It’s so beautiful. I don’t have so much money right now.

The storekeeper would say, well, fine. Take it home. And I’ll start charging you interest in, I don’t know, six months whatever.

PETER: So that’s one of the things to create the modern consumer, you have to have credit.

TIM BREEN: Absolutely because in early America, literally almost before World War I, there was always a scarcity of specie. And so without–

PETER: That is hard money, right?

TIM BREEN: Yeah, without circulating money, so without credit, this consumer market would have faltered at the beginning.

PETER: So Tim, before department stores or internet shopping, well, how did people do it? Could you describe the culture of shopping in Anglo-America, in the colonies before the Revolution?

TIM BREEN: Right. One of the elements stimulating this market, Peter, were a new rise in magazine and print communication. So someone like George Washington we know was reading the equivalent of Country Life and saying, oh wow, look at– I really need one of those. And merchants that I’ve studied, they advertised in the papers with their address, “come down to the sign of the anchor and you’ll see our new shipment of cottons” or whatever.

And increasingly they tried to find, especially in Philadelphia, ways to lure the shoppers in. One merchant anticipated Starbucks by about 250 years by offering customers coffee if they’d come into the shop and look around. And in the back country, you had a whole range of small stores that historians have begun to explore, and even a pattern of peddlers bringing goods to small towns that seemed– before any historians looked at, seemed inaccessible to this consumer market. But in fact, these guys in their little wagons or whatever were bringing the same stuff, glassware, crockery, and whatnot.

PETER: So Brian, Ed, we had advertising. We had a system of distribution. We had consumer desire. I think you’d agree that it’s pretty clear that Americans from all walks of life were shopping in the 1700s.

BRIAN: Peter, you’re doing better than I thought you’d be doing.

PETER: All right. Thanks, Brian.

BRIAN: Keep going.

PETER: Yeah?

BRIAN: Yeah.

PETER: OK. So I got another thing that I’m going to lay on to you. It’s not just that there was shopping. You’ve given me that much. But this shopping really mattered. Does your shopping matter?

Their shopping mattered. And I’ll tell you why. Tim argues that not only was there a consumer culture in the colonial era, but that that culture played a big part in bringing on the American Revolution. So let me set this up, all right?

The English knew that Americans loved to buy their stuff. So when the Crown found itself in need of revenue, naturally it ramped up taxes on the sale of its goods here. And it was at this point that the colonists took a stand as consumers.

TIM BREEN: The Americans came up with a totally new way of organizing, mobilizing political protest. And that is the consumer boycott. Consumers in America said, wait a minute. We’re really dependent on these British goods. But then the British manufacturers are really dependent on us.

And maybe if we can’t get attention of Parliament, maybe we can get attention of the corporate investors, capitalists in England, by cutting back in our own consumption. It would be a warning shot. It started in 1765 as a response to the Stamp Act. And it continued slowly over a decade, to become more efficient.

PETER: So in effect, Tim, you’re suggesting that consumers became politicized. And it was because they’re upset about disruptions in the market.

TIM BREEN: Right. But they also saw their own consumer decisions as possibly a way of achieving for middle– ordinary people achieving a political voice. The burden of non-consumption fell on the shoulders of ordinary men and women. And if you look at the newspapers in 1774, 1775, Peter, you see– it doesn’t matter where you start reading, in the middle colonies or in New England. They’re filled with stories of people somewhere else stopping consumption or organizing committees to police consumption.

And these news stories gave ordinary Americans a sense, well, look. You know, I don’t know these folks down in Carolina. But they seem to be doing what we’re doing. It created an imaginary–

PETER: Yeah. Sort of a collective identity through consumption.

TIM BREEN: Yeah. Yeah. Right. We’re not going to be left hanging out there alone.

PETER: So it’s not liberty and this kind of radical individualism that we associate with the ideas of the Revolution. It’s this collective action.


TIM BREEN: Yeah. You can’t have a revolution without collective action.

PETER: Yeah. And it’s through consumption, because consumers are aware of each other. They recognize each other as consumers, and their power as consumers.

TIM BREEN: Right. Now, it’s not the entire story, of course. I mean, did liberty and freedom and rights matter? Of course they did. And it wasn’t just window dressing. But within this ferment of people thinking about their own political futures and finding also a community of fellow protesters through the marketplace was a real key to our success.

PETER: Yeah. And I think, Tim, you’re saying that American revolutionaries were real people.

TIM BREEN: Absolutely. We’ve turned the Revolution into a kind of a sophisticated book club of some Harvard people.

PETER: Whoa. Harvard.

TIM BREEN: And you know, that was nice. They could write little treatises and pamphlets. But, you know, 10 pamphlets a revolution does not make.

PETER: Thanks a lot, Tim.

TIM BREEN: OK, Peter. Call if you have any more questions.

PETER: So that was Tim Breen, professor emeritus at Northwestern University, and he now teaches at the University of Vermont in Burlington. He’s the author of Marketplace of Revolution, How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. So what do you think, guys? Do you buy this argument, that the United States was essentially born as a nation of shoppers?

BRIAN: Well, Peter, I’d consider renting it, short-term rental, by the way.

PETER: Oh, how about a 99-year lease? Come on.

BRIAN: Yeah. Look, I get it. We really created the infrastructure of a market, and even the infrastructure of credit. But what’s really different about things in the 20th century, what’s referred to as the consumer revolution, has very little to do with what people buy and a lot more with the amount of time that they have to buy things. It has to do with a reduction of work. It has to do with the rise of eventually the 40-hour work week and weekends free from labor. To have what we in the 20th century called a culture of consumption really required organizing one’s life and one’s identity around what you shop for. And I simply don’t believe that back in the 17th and 18th century the masses had the leisure time to do that.

PETER: Well, I’d say this, Brian. I think you have underscored the fact that these are different shopping cultures. And I think that’s very important. It’s the context of the late 18th century in which shopping really is a special activity for a lot of people. It is something new. And it’s something that they have become dependent on, that they cherish, that’s very special.

They don’t do it all the time. The shopping opportunities are not ubiquitous. And I think that’s precisely why fears that they’ll be driven out of the market politicize them.

ED: And that’s why shopping in the 19th century is something different than shopping in the 18th century, Peter. Picking on some of the themes that both you and Brian laid out, shopping by its very nature means that you are choosing among much. You are choosing among multiple sources, right? And the fact that there is some cloth from England in one shop in your town that you can buy and you go to a shop and get it is a kind of consumerism. It’s a kind of consumption.

But that’s not the same thing as going into these new department stores of the 19th century and having before you this profusion of choice. So I think the real question is, at what point does a difference in degree become a difference of kind? But it does strike me that when the velocity and the volume of these things increase to such an extent, it lays the conditions for what Brian’s talking about, in which you would actually decrease the amount of work you’re doing so that you could do more of the shopping. You specialize it more among the genders and so forth.

PETER: I think that’s right, Ed. I agree with that. And I think that’s a nice perspective. We’ve always been in a kind of market society and that accelerated before the Revolution and in some ways the Revolution is associated with consumption and market activity. But the culture of consumption is a work in progress. And now it’s something that we take so much for granted, it’s so much who we are, that it’s hard to understand the very excitement of the origins of shopping on a democratic scale.


BRIAN: Right. Right.