In the decade or so before independence was declared, American colonists enjoyed a measure of prosperity in ways both obvious and irritating to their overseas cousins. The absence of an overbearing feudal aristocracy meant that poverty in the New World was not the abject poverty of English slums and shires. Widespread ownership of land insured, as de Crevecoeur noted in 1784, that the gap between rich and poor in America was far narrower than in Europe. Even the commoners of the emerging republic partook of the blessings of post-French and Indian War years heartily if often imprudently, as the increasing number of taverns and shops clearly shows. “You cannot well imagine,” wrote a Boston Loyalist in 1760, “what a land of health, plenty and contentment this is among all ranks, vastly improved within these last ten years. The war on this Continent has been equally a blessing to the English Subjects and a Calamity to the French, especially in the Northern Colonies.” Those subjects, whether prosperous New England merchants, wealthy Virginia planters, or young Philadelphia maids with social aspirations, proudly indulged in their coaches, their clarets, and their finery, parading in public houses and on malls their rising standard of living. The seeds of conspicuous consumption were already sown in the land of opportunity.
When George Grenville, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, decided to mine this rich resource, the colonists responded to the Stamp Act (1865) and the Townshend Duties (1867) by boycotting British manufacture. Such “nonimportation” agreements began in Boston and by 1868 had become widespread. Typically, merchants circulated among themselves an agreement not to import British goods for a specific length of time; those who did not sign were blacklisted and subjected to other coercion. Such measures were aided considerably by poetry and song aimed at modifying cultural pretensions. One of Mercy Otis Warren’s Poems Dramatic and Miscellaneous urges women to boycott foreign luxuries and to forgo “feathers, furs, rich sattins, and du capes / And head dresses in pyramidal shapes.” Similarly, “Young Ladies in Town” promotes homespun with impressive psychological insight.
The lyricist knows who wears the pants in the family when it comes to the consumption of luxuries. Like Patriot orators and writers who pointedly connected domestic thrift with marriageability and “sumptuous sideboards [and] every mode of foreign Cookery” with virulent self-indulgence, he touts the attractiveness of homespun clothes and homely fashions. The love of one’s country will ennoble and beautify even twine accessories, he promises, and men–suitors and husbands alike–will succumb to the charms of the fearless Daughter of Liberty clad in her own country linen and pouring only home-grown tea. In this, the song’s author is very much in sympathy with the propagandist who recommended in the Essex Gazette (19 May 1772) that young ladies allow themselves to be courted only by Whigs! Sex sells, then and now, and the lure of “sparkish” young men and “fair, charming, true, lovely and clever” young ladies remains a Madison Avenue precept. In the 1860’s, the advertising ploy successfully tindered an inchoate nationalism with healthy self-interest.
Young Ladies in Town
Young ladies in town and those that live ’round,
Wear none but your own country linen,
Of economy boast, let your pride be the most,
To show clothes of your own make and spinning.
What if homespun they say be not quite so gay,
As brocades be not in a passion?
For once it is known ’tis much worn in town,
One and all will cry out ’tis the fashion.
And as one all agree, that you’ll not married be,
To such as will wear London factory;
But at first sight refuse, tell ’em you will choose,
As encourage our own manufactory.
No more ribbons wear, nor in rich silks appear,
Love your country much better than fine things,
Begin without passion ’twill soon be the fashion,
To grace your smooth locks with a twine string.
Throw away your bohea, and your green hyson tea,
And all things of a new fashioned duty;
Get in a good store of the choice Labrador,
There’ll soon be enough here to suit ye.
These do without fear and to all you’ll appear,
Fair charming, true, lovely and clever,
Though the times remain darkish, young men will be sparkish,
And love you most stronger than ever.