The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America

The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America

The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America

The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America

Synopsis

Over the course of the eighteenth century, Anglo-Americans purchased an unprecedented number and array of goods. The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America investigates these diverse artifacts--from portraits and city views to gravestones, dressing furniture, and prosthetic devices--to explore how elite American consumers assembled objects to form a new civil society on the margins of the British Empire. In this interdisciplinary transatlantic study, artifacts emerge as key players in the formation of Anglo-American communities and eventually of American citizenship. Deftly interweaving analysis of images with furniture, architecture, clothing, and literary works, Van Horn reconstructs the networks of goods that bound together consumers in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston.



Moving beyond emulation and the desire for social status as the primary motivators for consumption, Van Horn shows that Anglo-Americans' material choices were intimately bound up with their efforts to distance themselves from Native Americans and African Americans. She also traces women's contested place in forging provincial culture. As encountered through a woman's application of makeup at her dressing table or an amputee's donning of a wooden leg after the Revolutionary War, material artifacts were far from passive markers of rank or political identification. They made Anglo-American society.

Excerpt

In 1752, the British-born artist Joseph Blackburn (fl. 1752–1778) painted a portrait of Bermuda merchant and official Francis Jones (fig. 1). Jones, seated at a table, is shown hard at work on his correspondence; his writing set is positioned in front of him with a quill and a stick of red wax standing at the ready for the merchant to compose and then seal his letters. At the moment, however, the sitter grips an opened letter in his left hand and with his right points toward the window behind him. Jones’s gesture reminds the viewer of his commercial interests, symbolized by the ship sailing near the Bermuda coast. But his raised finger also calls attention to the pile of opened correspondence that sits before him. Blackburn directs the viewer’s gaze between the ship and the papers by leading the eye from the vessel’s billowing white sails to the bright-white, ruffled cuff that descends from the wrist of the sitter’s pointing arm, then to the white feather’s parted barbs immediately beneath, and finally down the feather’s shaft to the pile of white letters that rests just beside the writing set. As this visual linkage suggests, these missives were as essential to Jones’s commercial success as the distant ship. Blackburn’s painting celebrates Jones’s building of strong and far-reaching networks through his correspondence. Like other transatlantic merchants, Francis Jones relied upon a web of friends and associates for information; within his letters’ pages came details about prices at different ports, warnings about conflicts that might disrupt shipments and destroy vessels, and news of the creditworthiness of potential partners. Without the reliable list of prices his correspondents provided, the merchant could not position his own goods effectively at far-flung markets, and without the personal financial connections (built through correspondence) that enabled him to receive and to extend credit, the merchant could not operate. Nowhere is the importance of the letter and the networks . . .

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