Title Reviewed:
A New Nation of Goods: The Material Culture of Early America

Author Reviewed:
David Jaffee

Jennifer Van Horn


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 107, Issue 4, pp 383-385

Article Type:
Book Review

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A New Nation of Goods
The Material Culture of Early America

By David Jaffee
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Pp. [xvi], 400. Illustrations, notes, index. $45.00.)

A New Nation of Goods is a detailed yet wide-ranging study of the manufacture and consumption of material goods in the provincial northeastern United States between 1775 and 1850-a period after provincial elites' embrace of genteel goods, but before the materialization of Victorian bourgeois culture. David Jaffee investigates the vital role played by New England's provincial craftsmen in facilitating the emerging middle class's embrace of gentility. As its title suggests, Jaffee's work is both a sequel and a rebuttal to historians (most notably T. H. Breen, in his 1986 essay "An Empire of Goods") who have maintained that American culture was forged in metropolitan ports during the colonial period. Instead, Jaffee maintains that an American taste formed in rural New England after the American Revolution, as producers modified elite goods in order to appeal to growing ranks of middling consumers, formulating new methods of production and distribution along the way.

To support this broad claim, Jaffee focuses on four types of goods: clocks, portraits / daguerreotypes, chairs, and books. He presents these artifacts not as naïve-or folk-interpretations of established metropolitan types (still the dominant view), but rather as unique design solutions that stemmed from craftsmen's embrace of new techniques of mass production alongside "the concurrent development of a flexible marketing system" (p. 181). Jaffee argues that the itinerant peddlers, booksellers, and portraitists who brought consumer goods to New England's gentry and middling sorts fueled the production of ever more goods and simultaneously educated purchasers about the material demands of gentility. Looking beyond the well-studied factories of Lowell, Massachusetts, he demonstrates that "industrialization took place outside the factory system" (p. 187).

The strength of Jaffee's work lies in his deft illumination of a more fluid, "grassroots" (p. 296) form of industrialization, as individual artisans took advantage of waterpower, available labor, and technological innovation to forge regional ties and increase production. Chairs produced in Sterling, Massachusetts, in the 1820s might be assembled from wood cut by waterpower in one city, legs turned on a lathe in a workshop in a different city, and rush seats woven by women in surrounding farmhouses. In the 1850s, as manufacturing began to consolidate and the mobile, small-scale entrepreneur was replaced with "a more hierarchical structure" (p. 296), Jaffee argues that middle-class consumers eschewed their independent gentility, becoming reliant on metropolitan tastes and bound to urban centers of production like New York City.

Although readers will appreciate Jaffee's deft interweaving of the important articles he has assembled over his career, his synthesis fails to elucidate fully the connections between aesthetic choices and class identity. Jaffee's concept of "hybrid" products that melded metropolitan styles with local demand is suggestive, but is never fully developed. Why did provincial middling consumers prefer stenciled chairs and meticulously delineated portraits? Of all the goods used by colonial elites, why did middling folks select clocks, chairs, and portraits as the constellation required for gentility? If emulation drove consumer demand, then why did provincial consumers often purchase goods that looked strikingly different from those used by metropolitan elites? Jaffee is hampered in answering these questions by his loose and shifting definitions of the social groups that constituted the emerging middle class, and by his selection of illustrations. (There are no close-ups that allow readers to follow construction details or decorative elements.) Despite these drawbacks, readers will appreciate Jaffee's penetrating glimpse into the overlooked gap between the consumer revolution and mass production and will come to appreciate the important role played by small New England towns in crafting a new nation of goods.

JENNIFER VAN HORN is Visiting Assistant Professor in Interdisciplinary Studies at Towson University. She specializes in early American art and material culture and is currently at work on a book manuscript, "Civility in a New World: Material Culture and the Making of America 1740- 1780."

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.