Material culture is fascinating. It can be as simple as a flint arrowpoint or as elaborate as hand gilded furniture, as beautifully functional as a Wedgwood teacup or as ridiculously simple as a copper kettle — the pieces available for interpretation are varied and many. Understanding how it shapes identity, how it alters and creates cultural identity, is more challenging.
The story of Phillip English (or Philippe L’Anglois), a Jersey merchant who immigrated to Salem in the seventeenth century, is an excellent example. A merchant who brought foreign goods to New England, he also forced the insular Puritan community to cope with those unlike themselves — and in the process created a new cultural identity. He prospered in his given profession as an Anglicized Frenchman in a British colony, forcing his contemporaries to acknowledge not only the necessity of his presence, but his intrinsic worth as well. In the interim, however, by creating and maintaining an identity separate from the other Salem merchants, he occupied a psychological and cultural borderland. This created tensions with his Puritan neighbors, true, but the psychological space in which they met and conducted their business gave rise of the “polite consumer culture” of the eighteenth century.
That Phillip English was partially responsible for the rise of a polite consumer culture that eventually modeled itself on Georgian gentility is not surprising. Much of what he imported were goods popular among the gentility. His actions, coupled his very existence in that time and place, contributed to the transition away from Puritan homogeneity to commercial homogeneity. The interplay between commerce and culture transformed the social universe, because “polite culture” was concerned more with outward symbols of success than it was eternal salvation. Once gentility became a sign of economic and social prosperity, your appearance became everything. To be part of this imagined community required purchasing its trappings.
This meant people were not only purchasing an identity, they were altering culture through the acquisition and display of new and exotic goods. A New England origin for the idea of “keeping up with the Jones,'” perhaps?
Of course, the meaning given to material goods can change and, subsequently, change culture. Those who believed that the luxurious possessions they owned reflected their worth identified as Georgian gentility. At the same time, others who were resistant to capitalism and the new culture unfolding, and those of the lower classes, saw those objects quite differently. This difference of interpretation became more evident as the eighteenth century wore on. The culmination of this reinterpretation was the result of the Patriots, who created new meanings for material goods and the connection between them and a person’s character.
By altering those meanings, the Patriots (and earlier, those opposed to the polite consumer culture) distinguished themselves and their politics from everyone else. This began to alter culture. With their emphasis on purchasing domestic goods as opposed to foreign imports, the Patriots created an “American” identity that endures to this day.
Isn’t it interesting how what we choose to buy, or not buy, reflects our culture and cultural perceptions? Material goods can alter or even create culture and culture alters and creates material goods.
For more on this topic, and to learn about Phillip English’s brush with the Salem Witchcraft Trials, read Purchasing Identity in the Atlantic World by Phyllis Hunter.