(In)Conspicuous Consumption

The things that we own, wear, use, and eat carry many stories. Atlantic trade facilitated access to a variety of products from around the world that were increasingly available to consumers. During the eighteenth century, colonial Americans welcomed luxuries like tea, sugar, mahogany, and tobacco into their daily routines, communicating their taste and worldliness. Their buying frenzy created a new American material culture and fueled a growing dependence on slavery.

The foundation of America’s consumer identity was a system that commodified human beings for profit. As teawares, tobacco, and countless other goods moved about the Atlantic, they were joined by millions of enslaved Africans whose labor made their production possible. Although out of sight for most consumers, the horrors of slavery provided the mahogany, cotton, and sugar that made up such genteel diversions as afternoon tea. Consumption is a political act. Even those not directly involved in the slave trade were not removed from its touch.

Look for the orange “Consumption” button throughout for objects interpreted through this theme. 

Banner image: Peter Manigault and His Friends, George Roupell (Draftsman); Charleston, South Carolina; 1757-1760; ink, graphite, wash, paper (laid); Museum purchase, 1963.0073