Buying into the World of Goods: Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia

By Byrne, Frank J. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Buying into the World of Goods: Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia


Byrne, Frank J., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Buying into the World of Goods: Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia * Ann Smart Martin * Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008 * xvi, 260 pp. * $55.00

A finely detailed, nuanced study of a single storekeeper's world in late eighteenth-century backcountry Virginia, Ann Smart Martin's Buying into the World of Goods attempts to do for merchants what Laurel Thatcher Ulrichs prize-winning work A Midwife's Tale (1990) did for New England midwives. Like Ulrich, Martin examines many traditionally overlooked sources, such as account ledgers and invoices, in order to reconstruct intricate economic and social relations. The primary focus here is merchant John Hook and his neighbors in Bedford and Franklin counties. Specifically, Martin attempts to piece together the world Hook and his customers made to illustrate that "specialized distribution chains" tied the frontier to the Atlantic World and that the goods merchants like Hook sold between the 1760s and the early 1800s allowed everyone in this network to create identities within the "drama in the world of goods" (pp. 1, 42). This work contains some brilliant analysis while raising a number of questions. It exhibits both the virtues and occasional limitations found in many studies that analyze material culture.

A surprisingly readable book in light of its rather abstract subject matter, Martin's lively study places Hook and his upcountry Virginia community within the larger Atlantic World. Born and raised in Scotland, he came to colonial Virginia as a thirteen-year-old clerk already immersed in the famous Scottish system of trade. Over time Hook learned the tobacco economy and made connections that enabled him to enter into the ranks of the merchant class. In six well-organized chapters that include an array of fine maps and photographs, Martin focuses upon the telling particulars of Hook's and his customers' lives, while rarely losing sight of the larger trends that shaped so much of their worldviews. Store sales are examined while such often ignored subjects as architecture, furnishings, and store displays receive sophisticated treatment. In those instances where a relevant issue is not addressed in the surviving 103 ledgers from Hook's stores, Martin includes numerous other excellent primary sources from nearby counties and colonies to round out her history. …

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