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Book Review: A New Nation of Goods, David Jaffee

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.)

In A New Nation of Goods: The Material Culture of Early America, David Jaffee offers a new perspective on the traditional interpretation of industrialization through his focus on material goods, the provincial artisans who produced them, and the peddlers who marketed them across the new nation. Through cases studies of four crafts – chairmaking, clockmaking, portrait painting, and book publishing – Jaffee reveals a story of industrialization outside the factory based instead on artisanal and shop production that challenges prior interpretations that focus on development of large-scale textile mills. In Jaffee’s counter-narrative, the countryside was the “site of innovation and expansion” and rural people exercised a great deal of control and influence on the production of consumer goods (Jaffee, 3). Jaffee attributes this analysis to “the unique power of objects to tell a story not available to us from the textual record” and urged historians to remember these significant sources, “objects enable the social world to happen, and we need to pay attention to what objects do, and how they work” (Jaffee, 103 and xiv). In A New Nation of Goods, Jaffee makes a powerful argument for the significance of material culture to understanding the development of a market economy and middle-class taste in early national America.

In his analysis, Jaffee describes a model of change similar to Lyon’s characterization of sexuality in Sex among the Rabble, “whereby stability undergoes change and then fluidity is followed by rigidity” (Jaffee, 327). In Jaffee’s model, there is a circular movement from a pre-revolutionary society with an established social hierarchy of ministers, storekeepers, and merchants who acted as cultural mediators to a period of “social and cultural fluidity” to an “increasingly restricted set of rules for middle-class culture” (Jaffee, xi and 303). He terms this relatively brief period the Village Enlightenment, which was strongly connected to the recent successful popular revolution and the development of a print culture not controlled by the elite and often located in the hinterland. This accessibility of knowledge coupled with the increasing availability of schools for young men and women lead to “the erosion of a hierarchical structure of authority . . . and points to the emergence of a social organization of knowledge suitable to the requirements of rural folk in the rising republic” (Jaffee, 48). During this period of fluidity, the countryside was the site of cultural development.

Jaffee’s most compelling evidence for the significance of the countryside in the creation of American culture and a national market during this period is his discussion of the itinerant peddler. These young men traversed the countryside with wagons and trunks brimming with new consumer goods such as clocks and small decorative pieces and in the process helped “create a national market” (Jaffee, 182). This itinerant peddlers and artists were essential to the development of a market economy because they accustomed rural people to buying consumer goods. The folklore surrounding the peddlers suggests rural Americans were not immediately enamored with consumer goods or the development of a market-based economy. The depictions of peddlers in Figures 50 and 51 suggest an ambivalence to the peddler and his wares and suggest “the promise and perils that commodities held for the isolated farm families,” which, artistic representations of the peddler and contemporary accounts suggest were often divided along gender lines (Jaffee, 163). This suggests a tension that is missing from Jaffee’s celebration of industrialization outside the factory, what was the consumer response to these goods? Why did men and women react differently to the peddler’s wares?

Rachel A. Snell

More information on the text available here.

Rachel A. Snell, “Book Review: A New Nation of Goods,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), November 29, 2012,

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