AP®︎/College US History
The consumer revolution
Shared literature, style, and consumption linked the British colonies with the home country.
- The development of the Atlantic economy in the eighteenth centuries allowed American colonists access to more British goods than ever before.
- The buying habits of both commoners and the rising colonial gentry fueled the consumer revolution, creating even stronger ties with Great Britain by means of a shared community of taste and ideas.
The colonial gentry
British Americans’ reliance on indentured servitude and slavery to meet the demand for colonial labor helped give rise to a wealthy colonial class—the gentry—in the Chesapeake tobacco colonies and elsewhere. To be genteel—a member of the gentry—meant to be refined, free of all rudeness. The British American gentry modeled themselves on the English aristocracy, who embodied the ideal of refinement and gentility.
A painted portrait shows William Byrd II posing with an elbow on a mantelpiece.
American aristocrats built elaborate mansions to advertise their status and power. William Byrd II of Westover, Virginia, exemplifies the colonial gentry. A wealthy planter and slaveholder, he is known for founding Richmond and for his diaries documenting the life of a gentleman planter.
The consumer revolution
One of the ways in which the gentry set themselves apart from others was through their purchase, consumption, and display of goods. An increased supply of consumer goods from England that became available in the eighteenth century led to a phenomenon called the consumer revolution.
Consumer products linked the colonies to Great Britain in real and tangible ways. Indeed, along with the colonial gentry, ordinary settlers in the colonies also participated in the frenzy of consumer spending on goods from Great Britain. Tea, for example, came to be regarded as the drink of the British Empire, with or without fashionable tea sets.
Newspapers, pamphlets and novels in the consumer revolution
The consumer revolution also made printed materials more widely available. Before 1680, for instance, no newspapers had been printed in colonial America. In the eighteenth century, however, a flood of journals, books, pamphlets, and other publications became available to readers on both sides of the Atlantic. This shared trove of printed matter linked members of the British Empire by creating a community of shared tastes and ideas.
Cato’s Letters, by Englishmen John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, was one popular series of 144 pamphlets. These Whig circulars were published between 1720 and 1723 and emphasized the glory of England, especially its commitment to liberty. However, the pamphlets cautioned readers to be ever vigilant and on the lookout for attacks upon that liberty. Indeed, Cato’s Letters suggested that there were constant efforts to undermine and destroy liberty.
Another very popular publication was the English gentlemen’s magazine the Spectator, published between 1711 and 1714. In each issue, “Mr. Spectator” observed and commented on the world around him. What made the Spectator so wildly popular was its style; the essays were meant to persuade and to cultivate among readers a refined set of behaviors, rejecting deceit and intolerance and focusing instead on the polishing of genteel taste and manners.
Novels, a new type of literature, made their first appearance in the 18th century and proved very popular in the British Atlantic. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded found large and receptive audiences. Reading also allowed female readers the opportunity to interpret what they read without depending on a male authority to tell them what to think. Few women beyond the colonial gentry, however, had access to novels.
What do you think?
Compare and contrast white British citizens living in England and white British citizens living in America during the eighteenth century. In what ways were they similar? In what ways were they different?
Take a look at William Byrd's portrait. How do elements of the painting suggest Byrd's status as a member of the colonial gentry?
How influential do you think newspapers, pamphlets, and novels were in creating a shared culture throughout the British Empire? How do you think present-day forms of international media, like television shows and websites, compare to the printed word in the eighteenth century?
Want to join the conversation?
- Were female journalists popular back then? Or was it considered "unfit" for a woman to write novels?(16 votes)
- 18th century Frederika Charlotte Riedesel is considered to have been the first American Woman in journalism, but female journalists did not become popular until the 19th century, with people like Jane Grey Swisshelm, Magaret Fuller and Nellie Bly. Although women in journalism did not really take hold until the 19th century there are many female novelists from the 18th century including Jane Austen and Frances Burney.[hope that helps :)](21 votes)
- In many of the primary texts that Khan Academy uses in their skill question sets, there are square brackets around some words. What do the square brackets mean?
Exampel: “It is ordered and unanimously agreed upon, that the Government which this [body politic] doth attend unto in this Island, and the Jurisdiction thereof, in favour of our Prince is a [democracy], or Popular Government; that is to say, It is in the [power] of the Body of Freemen orderly assembled, or the major part of them, to make or constitute Just Lawes, by which they will be regulated, and to depute from among themselves such Ministers as shall see them faithfully executed between Man and Man.”
Is the [power] symbolizing that the word was smeared or something?(4 votes)
- were female writers popular back then(2 votes)
- Female writers were most definitely not popular in the minds of men. However, there were a handful of authors who went by male nom de plumes. For instance, the Bronte sisters in the 19th century. Harriet Beecher Stowe was a female writer in the 19th century as well, and she wrote one of the most controversial novels of the century, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" which described the atrocities of slavery.(4 votes)
- what was the biggest thing that separated the gentry to others.(2 votes)
- Wealth, which gave the gentry material abundance and economic/social status and privilege.(1 vote)
- how did consumer revolution play a rollin the american revolution(1 vote)
- That was neatly summed up in the paragraph about the printed word. I suggest you read it once again. You'll find the answer to your question there.(3 votes)
- who was the first woman to be brave enough to write something publicly(0 votes)
- Many regard Enheduanna, a Sumerian priestess who lived more than 4,200 years ago, as the first known female writer.(4 votes)
- rise to a wealthy colonial class—the gentry—in the Chesapeake tobacco colonies and elsewhere.(1 vote)
- how did the consumer revolution play a role in the American revolution?(1 vote)
- The consumer revolution contributed to a class of people in America with wealth. With wealth came power and political demands.(1 vote)
- Did any female writters become popular in this era ?(1 vote)
- No, they didn't, because there weren't any female writers back then, with the exception of letter writers.(1 vote)
- the consumer revolution: how did the north american colonial economy ( particularly in the north) begin to change with the rise of the industrial revolution in england? What was the impact of the consumer revolution on the spreading of ideas?(1 vote)