Abstract: The Ties That Buy: Shopping Networks of the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World

Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor


Scholars studying the spread of material goods in North America during the eighteenth century have focused on growing retail distribution connections and emphasized the role of the merchant and shopkeeper in educating customers about genteel choices. In most cases, they have overlooked a vital conduit for goods and consumer information in this period: the men and women who shopped for clothing, housewares, books, food, and medicine on behalf of others. The packages they assembled and the accompanying letters traveled along intercolonial and later interstate shopping networks that enabled people to provide for needs and desires not satisfied by local offerings. Using the concept of a "network" to analyze relationships among shoppers and between shoppers and sellers, this paper proposes a new definition of shopping for eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America that comprehends shopping as a simultaneously economic and social practice, particularly for women. While scholars have highlighted consumer choice as the transforming experience of a market that offered more goods and greater variety, the ubiquity of intermediaries and the importance of shopping networks illustrate the paradox of consumer choice in the context of collaborative shopping.