All That’s Fit to Buy: Shopping in the 18th Century

It seems we are all pre-occupied with the subject of groceries lately – how we’re going to get them, which store has what, which items are hard to find at the moment.  The current shopping situation is an alien one to us in our modern world of on-line ordering and nearly instant delivery.  The stress of not being able to get something we need or want at a moment’s notice causes us anxiety, makes us worry about future procurement and how we’ll find what we need.  However, this new reality wouldn’t be at all unusual to those who lived here in Fredericksburg in the 18th century.  In fact, it was their daily way of life, and in some ways,  a form of entertainment and a social outlet.

Empty bottled water shelves

Shelves at a store in Ohio emptied of bottled water on March 15, 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Dan Keck / Wikipedia

To get into the mind-set of someone like Betty Lewis, who was shopping for her own immediate family, a household staff of enslaved labor, and probably her aging mother, as well, we must take a look at how shopping has evolved in America.  Much of what we do today has its roots in the colonial period.  In the early 18th century, shops were few and far between.  In fact, the concept of a free-standing building purpose-built to be a shop didn’t really exist.  The first places where locals could find various goods for sale were really private homes.  These makeshift shops might be a single room in a house, or goods for sale might be found in various storage spaces throughout the house.[1]  Customers, usually neighbors and acquaintances, might come in on social calls and peruse the goods while taking tea and visiting.

Without formal supply chains or reliable access to any one kind of good, early merchants did not specialize in anything, but rather sold whatever they happened to come across. Their customers rarely arrived with a list, but rather decided what would be useful to them once they saw what was available.  And what was available could really run the gamut.

The contents of one such in-home shop in rural Virginia in 1728 was described by an inventory taker as being arranged between a small storage building on the property and “in the dwelling” itself.  A shelf in the storage building held hose, hats and fabric, while underneath it on the floor were books, shoes, various tools, beads and spectacles.  A single crate on the floor held stoneware, glassware, and pewter vessels, as well as needles, combs, sugar and more books.  In the house, the inventory listed more hose, gloves, 2 boxes of smoking pipes, chaffing dishes, chamber pots and punch bowls.[2]  Not only is there no real theme to the goods for sale, they appear to be heaped together in a jumble, leaving the customer to dig through it all.

As the 1700s progressed, colonial American shops became more formal affairs with their own dedicated buildings, purpose-built as commercial structures, often sporting identifiable features like large display windows in front, and a large counter inside, separating customers from the merchant and more expensive goods.  While the wide, and sometimes bizarre, variety of goods available did not decrease, their arrangement on shelves and tables began to have a bit more thought behind it.  It was the first inkling of visual display and marketing in America, and as the number of shops increased, it was more and more necessary to attract customers.

The contents of a free-standing shop in 1801 Virginia was inventoried for tax purposes and shows quite a transition.  One entire wall of the shop was covered with shelving and cubby holes.  The cubbies held buttons separated by size, 124 types of “paper”, razors, knives and forks (each wrapped in individual paper packages) and ribbons.  The shelves held fabrics by the yard and books.  A series of three trunks arranged under the shelving held glassware, while creamware was housed in 3 crates.  Barrels of dry goods that needed to be measured and weighed sat at the end of the counter, where a set of scales was at the ready.[3]  This shop was clearly a general mercantile, offering a bit of everything, but by the end of the 18th century, shopkeepers did tend to specialize.  One might be known for fabrics, while another sold furniture, and another was more of a grocer.[4]  Even so, almost every establishment always had an assortment of odds and ends for sale, and so a customer might come away with fabric and lace for a new dress, and a bottle of castor oil, since it was available.

So this was the shopping world that Betty Lewis operated in.  Many of her receipts and accounts with local Fredericksburg shops still survive in the Kenmore manuscript collection, as do a few shop accounts from the Lewis store.  They show that Fredericksburg was typical of the 18th century evolution in shopping.  For instance, William Potter’s account at the Lewis store for the year 1744 (before Fielding Lewis took over the operation from his father) shows that the Lewises were offering the “jumble” approach to goods for sale.  Potter purchased hanks of silk, buttons, yard goods, pipes, sewing notions, butter, a trunk, rum, soap, wig curlers, and finally, bacon.[5]

Lewis Store in Fredericksburg, Virginia

Historic Lewis Store in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Credit: George Barnick / Wikipedia

By 1766, Fielding had obviously expanded his mercantile operation to carry a more streamlined assortment of housewares, many of which reflected his ability to procure high end products from England through his trade ships.  James Winn’s account with the Lewis store in that year shows purchases of a set of 10 glass tumblers, creamware plates, soup spoons, brass sconces and amazingly, a “turkey stript” which is not a reference to poultry but more likely to a striped Turkish rug, which would have been an exceedingly hard thing to find in 18th century Virginia.  While the Lewis store seemed to be catering to its urban clientele, they were also carrying that ubiquitous assortment of odds and ends that changed week to week.  On the same day that Winn purchased his striped Turkish rug, he also bought a ladies’ hat and 12 pounds of coffee.

ms 109 excerpt

An excerpt of James Winn’s account with Fielding Lewis, showing his purchase of “turkey stript”

The surviving accounts also show that Betty was a shopper of her time, picking up a thing or two on every outing, debating what would be useful to her, and what might come in handy down the road when it was no longer available in the shops.  By the end of the 18th century, Callender & Henderson was the primary general mercantile store in Fredericksburg, while Andrew Parks ran a shop selling luxury goods and housewares.  Betty Lewis did business with both.  From October of 1796 through January of 1797, Betty purchased sugar cones, a purple shawl, and quite a few pieces of nice fabric from Mr. Parks, as well as “1 wire sifter” which was noted on the account to be from Baltimore, as all good wire sifters should be.[6]  Betty’s purchases with Callender & Henderson in 1794 ranged from snuff to limes, turpentine to mustard, grammar lesson books to molasses.[7]  An account with the same store in 1796 showed what items Betty purchased on each shopping trip.  On January 5, she procured both a pair of shoes and Spanish Brown pigment for paint.  On May 26, she came away with a cask of cut nails and molasses.  And on June 27, Betty had a banner day at the shops, purchasing a dozen buttons and 2 barrels of pickled herring.[8]

ms 856 excerpt

An excerpt of Betty Lewis’s account with Callender & Henderson, showing a range of purchases in 1796.

Back here in our modern world, suddenly feeling very reminiscent of the 18th century, I myself recently bought eggs from the barber shop, toilet paper from a local restaurant and yogurt from the butcher.  All odd sources to our minds, but Betty Lewis wouldn’t have batted an eye.  You buy what you can find where you can find it, and if you can’t get what you need, change the plan.  Did Betty go out on June 27, 1796 with the intention of buying two barrels of pickled herring? I highly doubt it, but I’m willing to bet that the Lewis household had fish for dinner that night, even though the menu may have originally called for game hens.

[1] Hodge, Christina J. Consumerism and the Emergence of the Middle Class in Colonial America. Cambridge University Press, 2014; pp. 122.

[2] Martin, Ann Smart. “Commercial Space as Consumption Arena: Retail Stores in Early Virginia.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, vol. 8, 2000, pp. 204. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3514414. Accessed 16 Apr. 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hodge, pp. 130.

[5] William Potter in Account with John Lewis, 1744.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 102.

[6] Betty Lewis in Account with Andrew Parks, October, 1796 – January, 1797.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 426.

[7] Betty Lewis in Account with David Henderson, 1794. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 716.

[8] Betty Lewis in Account with David Henderson, 1796. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 856.

The Lewis Ships That Sailed the Atlantic World

B1981.25.623

“An English Sloop Becalmed near the Shore” (mid-18th cent.) by Francis Swaine. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

George Washington’s Ferry Farm is located on a hill overlooking the Rappahannock River.  That river connects to the Chesapeake Bay and eventually the Atlantic Ocean.  When young George Washington lived at Ferry Farm, the Rappahannock was a gateway to the entire world.  Fredericksburg was a port town on the river’s opposite bank from the farm and small ocean-going sailing vessels traveled up the Chesapeake and into the Rappahannock to dock at the bustling town’s wharves.  Ships like the brigs Stanton and Priscilla as well as the schooners Grampus and Penguin brought goods to buy, news from the rest of the British Empire, and occasionally people to settle and work in the colonies.

Growing up next to the river influenced the young Washington.  He got to experience life at sea first-hand when he left Ferry Farm and sailed to Barbados at the age of 17. Also, for a time, the family debated whether teenage George should pursue a career in the Royal Navy.  Moreover, at Ferry Farm, the Washingtons produced and consumed the goods that ships plied back and forth across the ocean.

George Washington, his family, slaves and neighbors were members of what historians call “The Atlantic World,” a global community of many different peoples taking part in the trade that traveled back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean.  Washington, his brother-in-law Fielding Lewis, and other Fredericksburg residents saw sailing ships on the Rappahannock every day and interacted with the sailors from those ships every day.  They supplied the ships with goods to take to destinations far across the sea and then bought the goods these ships carried when they returned.

In the 1600s and 1700s, tobacco was Virginia’s most important export but, at the same time, many planters along the Rappahannock chose to export things like wheat, foodstuffs, timber, and other raw materials used to manufacture goods.

Broadly speaking, these manufactured goods were made in Europe using the raw materials exported from the Americas.  Europe then sent the manufactured goods to Africa as well as back to the Americas.  In Africa, they were used to buy slaves while, in the Americas, they were used to purchase more raw materials.  This movement of goods has long been referred to as the “Triangular Trade” because of the triangle shape that the goods traveled when traced on a map.  Of course, this is a very simplistic description of a very complex network of trade that really spread across the globe.  Still, a triangle is a useful way to imagine, understand, and remember the basics of the process.

Washington’s brother-in-law Fielding Lewis and the Lewis family built and owned ships that transported goods throughout the Atlantic World. Records of these ships’ voyages help illuminate the Triangular Trade and also how Atlantic trade routes often did not look like a triangle at all.

Map of the Stanton's Voyage

In one of the earliest voyages of a Lewis ship, the 80-ton brig Stanton – owned by Fielding’s father John Lewis and captained by Richard Williams – made a roughly six month voyage in the first half of 1732. The Stanton was bound for Madeira, an island off the coast of Portugal, and then Barbados, an island in the Caribbean Sea, before returning to Virginia. Its voyage is a perfect illustration of the Triangular Trade and we’ve written about it here.

But the Atlantic trade was not always a triangular one.

During the first half of 1737, the Lewis brig Priscilla sailed directly to London and back under the command of Richard Williams and carrying 192 hogsheads of tobacco, six tons of iron, and 5,000 staves.[1] The ship returned to Virginia with “European goods” and, after a brief stop at Madeira, added some wine to its cargo.

'The South East Prospect of London from the Tower to London Bridge' 1746 by John Maurer

“The South East Prospect of London from the Tower to London Bridge” (1746) by John Maurer. Credit: Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The next year, the John Lewis-owned schooner Grampus mastered by John Briggs set sail with 300 staves, 600 bushels of corn, 900 bushels of peas, 180 bushels of wheat, 1 hogshead of wine, and 400 feet of walnut plank bound on a direct voyage to and from “New England.”  It returned with 5 hogsheads and 6 barrels of rum, some molasses, cider, oil, and “New England Ware.”

Finally, about a decade later, we find another John Lewis-owned ship departing Virginia.  The Penguin, a schooner captained by Will Whitterong with a crew of six, set sail for Antigua in the Caribbean on March 1, 1745 carrying 100 barrels of pitch, 303 barrels of tar, 35 barrels of turpentine, 100 bushels of peas, 8 barrels of tallow, and 13,800 shingles.  The Penguin arrived at Antigua on May 17 and returned to Virginia on June 5 with a cargo of 30 hogsheads and 1 tierce[2] of rum, 27 barrels of sugar, and British goods.

Did some of the items these ships brought back from across the Atlantic end up at Ferry Farm to be consumed or used by George Washington and his family (or the Strother family, the farm’s earlier occupants)?  It’s unlikely but not impossible.  Many of the items excavated by archaeologists at Ferry Farm definitely fit the descriptions “European goods,” “New England Ware,” or “British goods.”  Westerwald jugs, Bartmann bottles, white salt-glazed stoneware fruit dishes, and glass wine bottles all journeyed across the Atlantic to be used by Ferry Farm’s residents, then broken, thrown away, and buried, eventually to be recovered by archaeologists. No matter who actually used them, these recovered items represent the people and way of life of the 18th century’s Atlantic World made possible by the ships Stanton, Priscilla, Grampus, and Penguin.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Staves are the curved lengths of wood used to make barrels, buckets, or, in this case, pipes. Yes, wooden pipes.

[2] Tierce is an archaic measure of wine that roughly equaled 35 gallons. The term was also used as a synonym for cask, which seems what is meant in this case.

The Voyage of the ‘Stanton’

In colonial times, ocean-going ships could sail up the Rappahannock River all the way to Fredericksburg.  This made the tiny but growing town a bustling seaport.  All types of goods were loaded onto ships to be sent to Europe while others were unloaded to be sold right here in the colonies.

George Washington, Fielding Lewis, their families and slaves, as well as the town’s other residents were all members of a wider community centered on the trade traveling back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean.  The townspeople of Fredericksburg saw sailing ships on the Rappahannock every day.  Those ships brought goods to sell and to buy, news from the rest of the British Empire, and people to settle and work in the colonies.  Washington, Lewis, and their neighbors interacted with the sailors from these ships every day and were aware of the hardships of life at sea.

Map shows actual voyages of British ships in the last half of the 18th century according to their log entries. Learn more about how the map was created and compare British trade routes with Spanish and Dutch ones on the Spatial.ly blog. Created by Geographer James Cheshire, PhD, and used with permission.

George even experienced life at sea first-hand when he left Ferry Farm and Fredericksburg to sail to Barbados for a visit at the age of 19. This journey is the only time Washington left the confines of the future continental United States.  For a time, George, supported by elder half-brother Lawrence, even toyed with the idea of joining the British navy until Mary, George’s mother, firmly refused to give her permission.  For his part, Fielding Lewis made his riches from shipping goods to and from the colonies.  Shipping cargo, ship owning, and ship building was the family business started by his father John.

In the 1600s and 1700s, tobacco was Virginia’s most important export but, for a variety of reasons, many planters in this area chose to export things like wheat, timber, and other raw materials. Using the raw materials exported from the Americas, manufactured goods were made in Europe and then sent to Africa and back to the Americas.  The manufactured goods paid for slaves in Africa and for more raw materials in America.  Often known as the ‘triangular trade’ because of the triangle shape it forms on a map, this historic trade pattern is one we learn as early as elementary school.

More than goods traveled along these trade routes.  People (sailors, settlers, and slaves) moved along them as well.  All of these movements created connections between nations, colonies, and groups of people in Europe, Africa, the Americas, and beyond.  The Atlantic Ocean was at the center of all these connections.  “Every European or African who moved to or was born in Virginia” was also a member of what historians call the Atlantic World.[1]

A voyage typical of those that took place within the Atlantic World was made by one of John Lewis’ ships in early 1732.  On December 23, 1731, the 80-ton brig Stanton — captained by Richard Williams — set sail with 8 crew and 2 guns aboard.

The Stanton was a brig, a sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts. While we have no idea what the Stanton itself looked like, a replica ship named the Lady Washington provides an idea of a brig’s size and appearance.

The tall ship, Lady Washington, under sail in Commencement Bay near Tacoma, Washington. Photo by Miso Beno.

Brig Lady Washington in Morro Bay, California. Photo by “Mike” Michael L. Baird.

If you look closely at the people toward the ship’s stern in the photo, you can appreciate just how small a brig can be.  Imagine crossing the stormy Atlantic Ocean in a ship that size!

As it left Virginia, the Stanton’s cargo was listed as “46 Pipe Staves, 1800 bushel corn, 1000 bushell wheat, 40 [tierces] of Bread, 15 barr[els of] flower, 1 bar[rel] of lard, 300 lb of beeswax, 2000 feet plank, 1100 feet heading & 15 barr[els of] Pork.”  Surprisingly to us, in this age before refrigeration, butchered livestock was an important export for Virginia.

The Stanton was bound for the island of Madeira 550 miles off the coast of Portugal.  The specific cargo exchanged at Madeira is not listed but, after that exchange, the ship set sail for Barbados in the Caribbean Sea.  Once more, cargo was exchanged but specifics were not recorded.

After a five month voyage covering 8,250 miles, the Stanton finally returned to Virginia on May 10, 1732. When the ship came into port in the colonies, it’s cargo included  “Rum – 21 [tierces and] 16 barrels, Sugar – 14 Barrels [and] 11 Qt. Casks, 8 Negros, 3 baggs ginger, & Sundry household goods.” Though not specified in the Stanton’s case, sundry household goods shipped to the colonies included ceramic and glass dishes, different cloths, jewelry, and books.

Map of the Stanton's Voyage

The Stanton’s voyage, the ports it visited, and the cargo it carried are all exceedingly typical of Atlantic World trade throughout the 1700s, whether in the earlier decades of John Lewis or the century’s later decades of his son Fielding.

Ultimately, situated where farm, frontier, city, river, and road converged on the edge of English empire and the Atlantic World, the people of Fredericksburg found their daily lives governed by Britain’s global economy and imperial culture.  Colonial men – whether gentry, tradesman, or servants – pursued homes, professions, pleasures, and possessions that conveyed their status, wealth, and English identities. Fielding Lewis used the ships he owned and the wealth he gained from actively participating as a British merchant in the Atlantic World to fund the struggle to throw off English colonial control, to do his part to support his brother-in-law’s army, and to create a new nation.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Special thanks again to Geographer James Cheshire for permission to use his map of British trade routes. Visit Spatial.ly, his geography blog, at http://spatialanalysis.co.uk/.

[1] April Lee Hatfield, Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004: 39.