Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Barbara J. Heath

Committee Members

David G. Anderson, Elizabeth J. Kellar, Katherine L. Chiles


Before the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) profoundly impacted the lives of colonial Americans, another revolution of sorts was taking place. This one occurred in the realm of the daily lives of all colonial Americans – free and enslaved, poor and wealthy. What made the 40-year period before the American Revolution unique was that access to consumer goods appears to have opened up for larger segments of the colonial population through a more sophisticated and far-reaching system of distribution for imported items. But just how equal was this access? What can be learned about colonial culture and the maintenance of power relationships if this issue of equality of access to the material world is thoroughly and systematically investigated? This dissertation begins most simply with the question, what comprised the world of goods for individuals living in the upper Chesapeake region in the decades before the American Revolution? The research then progresses towards a set of questions that penetrates issues of power and access inherent in material culture. How was this world of goods different for individuals of separate socio-economic and racial categories? Why did individuals like George Washington maintain a commitment to the consignment system when stores offered the ease and convenience of local shopping? Who had access to which objects and what implications did this have for how material culture was employed or deployed towards the maintenance or destabilization of the colonial social order? I triangulate between three primary sources – Washington’s orders to and invoices from his agents in England; the store inventories from a local Scottish-owned retail outlet to answer these questions; and the archaeological record at Mount Vernon – to address these questions using a material culture approach that draws upon these compatible datasets on historical consumerism.

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