What I’ve Been Reading: Buying Into A World of Goods by Ann Smart Martin

Read this great book on 18th century commerce in the backwoods of Virginia. Ann Smart Martin’s Buying into the World of Goods: Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia is incredibly readable (and available on Kindle to boot! Or in full at Project Muse if you have a subscription).  Her skilled divining of consumer culture from sources including ledger books, correspondence, and material culture rebuilds a history of burgeoning 18th-century consumerism, not only for those most able to afford it, but specifically examining the buying experiences of the nearly undocumented working class. Martin examines the environment in which these people desired the acquisition of materials goods in studying John Hook’s shop, and how they interacted with them in their sparse dwellings, such as in a study of the Wade family cabin.

In my study of indentured and enslaved servant clothing, I found this book particularly useful. Martin illustrates the commercial relationship between the elite man, the working man, the slave, and the merchant, the gatekeeper to the stuff of desire. She traces the endeavors of John Hook, a Scot who comes to the colonies and struggles for success as a merchant in the remote backcountry. Martin’s in-depth study of John Hook reveals his struggles to procure decent merchandise from Scotland at a good price and to not get taken by either his customers or other competitors moving into the region.

A relevatory moment was Martin’s discussion on court days. It was the monthly dates during which court cases were held, turning the town into a rollicking market, festival, and tourney. Martin describes how backwoods stags would engage in public fights in which the goal was to maim each other by tearing ears off with your teeth. Find that in your general history text.


About Becky Fifield

Becky Fifield is a cultural heritage professional with 25 years experience in institutions large and small. She is currently Head of Collection Management for the Special Collections of the New York Public Library. An advocate for preventive conservation, Ms. Fifield is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation, Chair of the AIC Collection Care Network, and former Chair of Alliance for Response NYC. She is also a scholar of 18th century female unfree labor and dress. There's a bit of pun in the title The Still Room, delineating a quiet space brimming with the ingredients of memory, where consideration, analysis, and wordcraft can take place. Ms. Fifield’s interests include museum practice, dress history, historic preservation, transit, social and women’s history, food, current events, geneaology, roadtrips, and considerations on general sense of place. Becky and her husband, Dr. V, live in the Hudson Valley.