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Face Value: The Consumer Revolution and the Colonizing of America

Author(s):Carson, Cary
Reviewer(s):Shammas, Carole

Published by EH.Net (January 2018)

Cary Carson, Face Value: The Consumer Revolution and the Colonizing of America. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2017. xxv + 281 pp. $29.50 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-8139-3937-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Carole Shammas, Department of History, University of Southern California.

This book updates a 215-page essay published in a volume entitled Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century (1994) that the author edited with Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert. Carson, now retired, had a distinguished career at Colonial Williamsburg and served for a long period as its Director of Historical Research. Not surprisingly given that background, this book, like the preceding long essay, discusses consumption largely in terms of domestic architecture and durable goods, not diet, clothing, healthcare etc. He argues, as he did in the essay, for a consumer revolution in British America beginning in the later seventeenth century among white upwardly mobile portions of the population. In his view, an increase in the quantity, variety, and quality of consumer goods changed how people valued them. Men and women became much more likely to use these kinds of goods for self-definition and social interaction than previously.

The book contains seven chapters similar in content to the 1994 long essay. The first lays out his argument about an Anglo-American consumer revolution, the second, “Folk Consumers,” describes what he calls traditional society and peasants’ relative lack of interest in using consumer goods for purposes of self-definition. The next two chapters discuss the beginning of changes in the architecture and furnishing of the affluent classes in colonial America, and then chapter 5 describes the goods and spaces devoted to leisure activities. The following chapter considers the spread of consumer demand beyond the more genteel portions of the population from the time of the American Revolution into the early nineteenth century, but do not look for anything about log cabins here. Nor is there any effort to re-conceptualize the treatment of consumer demand by incorporating the torrent of new social history research over the past fifteen years or so on African Americans and Native Americans. Some of this work appears in his endnotes, but his organizing principles and conclusions remain the same. The final chapter includes his thoughts concerning the consumer revolution, Anglicization and the difference between materialism and material history.

The strength of Carson’s work is that it offers students of material culture ideas about how to interpret the social usage of artifacts and architectural elements by incorporating historical documents into their analysis. For economic historians, who tend to ask different kinds of questions from those raised by Carson, the main value lies in the signals he offers in regard to shifts in early American consumer demand for durables.

Carole Shammas holds the John R. Hubbard Chair emerita in the History Department at the University of Southern California. Her most recent publication on consumer demand is the edited volume Investing in the Early Modern Built Environment: Europeans, Asians, Settlers, and Indigenous Societies (Brill, 2012). She is currently working on a history of the 3Rs.

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Subject(s):Household, Family and Consumer History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century