Material Culture in Colonial North America

Essay by 2016 Arcadia Fellow Teresa McCulla

The American colonies and the British empire fought a war over political and philosophical ideas. Before they fired the first shot, however, the two sides clashed over more concrete, if seemingly trivial, things: sugar, stamps, and tea. In colonial North America, objects of material culture – furniture, clothing, books, and more substantial possessions, like land – played crucial social and economic roles. European Americans used such things to construct prestige, amass wealth for their families and institutions, and experience comfort and leisure. Material culture often constitutes the footnotes of history, yet scholars have proven its central importance to the study of daily life and larger trends alike.


Harvard libraries hold a wide variety of archival sources for researchers who seek to understand how residents of colonial America and the early Republic interacted with the objects around them. Archived wills, deeds, estate inventories, legal records, merchants’ ledgers, ships’ bills of lading, statements of debt, personal letters, and institutional papers can all assist in this work.


Constructing wealth, prestige, and leisure through objects

Colonial American communities developed far from the metropole, along the western frontier of Britain’s empire. In such an isolated setting, objects of material culture helped their owners generate new social and political identities. On May 8, 1736, a Boston merchant sold to Andrew Bordman “one large black framed looking glass, one dressing glass, six cain chairs, one elbow chair, one large walnut oval table, one couch, two feather beds, & one chest of drawers.”[i] The receipt recorded the furniture’s price, but much more can be read between the lines. Bordman’s purchases reflected his social stature as a member of a prominent family who had worked for Harvard College for generations. Clearly, Bordman outfitted a house that would host social events (with guests sitting at a large dining table), moments of leisure (as occupants reclined on couches or in an elbow chair), and hours of privileged rest (in feather beds). When colonists built increasingly elaborate homes and filled them with fine things, they communicated the fact that America could exist as its own independently wealthy nation, separate from its sovereign.


Throughout the early colonial era, Americans made many of the objects necessary to their daily lives, such as hinges, locks, clothing, earthenware plates, bowls, and jugs, and forged farm tools.[ii] Records point to an increase in imported and exported goods as Britain’s Caribbean slaveholding colonies became wealthier.[iii] As in the case of Bordman’s furniture purchase, 17th- and 18th century Americans tended to create records describing objects in moments of transition, as they bought, sold, gifted, or bequeathed them.[iv] Frequently a sense of value – monetary or sentimental – can be ascertained from sources centered on material things.[v] In records of sale or auction, for example, objects appeared alongside a corresponding price.[vi] In wills, the author designated the possessions he valued enough to pass on to an heir.[vii]


Inventories serve as a particularly unique class of archival source because they recorded a distinct set of objects at a specific moment in time, long before the advent of photography. For example, 18th century Harvard College Library shelf lists preserved the physical order of books encountered by students of the era.[viii] After a 1764 fire, Harvard library administrators created lists of volumes that had been saved and others later donated to help rebuild the collection.[ix] Equally intriguing, domestic estate inventories catalogued the contents of a home after its owner’s death. When Harvard professor Edward Wigglesworth died in 1794, an appraiser counted the items that filled his kitchen, dairy, cellar, woodhouse, barn, and yard.[x] Similarly, when longtime Harvard steward Caleb Gannett passed away in 1818, a detailed inventory of his house described the possessions that Gannett had acquired during America’s transition from colony to republic. The researcher can retrace the steps of the appraiser, who walked from Gannett’s West Middle Parlour (which contained a Pembroke Table, valued at $3.00 and Mahogany framed Looking Glass $6.00) to the West End Parlour (15 China plates $1.00, 4 Blue china Dishes & fish strainers $1.50), to the Office (Barometer $1.00, Liquor Case & Bottles $6.00), and beyond.[xi] Whereas ships’ bills of lading, merchant’s ledgers, and letter books of this era tended to describe bulk quantities of goods, unattached to specific producers or consumers, inventories documented the contents of very particular, human spaces.[xii] They permit the researcher to imagine the sensory and experiential qualities of domestic life during these decades and understand the material distinctions between public and private spaces.


Many archival records also show the increasing importance of cash in colonial North America. Currency’s value was highly unstable in American colonies and its use was irregular. But Americans found themselves evermore reliant on cash as a medium to procure possessions that in turn allowed them to participate fully in social and institutional life. In December 1789 Harvard student Nathaniel Freeman penned an epistle to his father in which he complained of “a painful lightness” in his pockets, empty of money. Freeman softened his request for cash with charming rhyme. He explained, “Without all powerful cash he could not share / The blushing spirits of bounteous Nature’s care.”[xiii] In addition to money, 18th-century Harvard students asked their parents to send overalls, hats, and buckles.[xiv] Such petitions may have seemed mundane, yet proper dress, as well as the knives, forks, and tea cups that students used in Harvard’s Commons, helped convert them from the sons of farmers and shopkeepers to Harvard scholars.[xv] Thus, cash, the objects purchased with cash, and the experiences to which cash allowed access were all vital in defining a sense of belonging within American society.


Land as an object to value, buy, and sell

Even if shoe buckles and teacups proved unexpectedly important in colonial North America, land was the ideal possession for many European Americans. Land delivered present and future wealth, nourishing its owners with food and producing commodities that could be sold to consumers. Colonial Americans valued land, modified it, and exploited its resources. They fought over its boundaries and bequeathed it to their children and institutions. The unique importance of land is readily apparent in the wide variety of records that colonial Americans created to track its ownership and sale.


Different from the ways in which Native Americans conceptualized the American landscape, European settlers imposed their own methods of measuring land, marking property boundaries, and recording ownership.[xvi] Mathematics notebooks belonging to 18th-century Harvard College undergraduates contained assignments in which students quite literally took the measure of the land around them, defining Harvard Yard and Cambridge in European-American terms.[xvii] Once land could be measured, it could be owned. When Boston shoemaker Ambrose Dew died in 1711, he left his sons Nathaniel and Obadiah, as his only heirs. Uncertain as to how to divide their father’s home and property, the men appointed a committee of colonists to arbitrate.[xviii] Less than a week later, the committee delivered its decision in visual form: a simple rectangle divided neatly down the middle, which split Dew’s property into two equal halves. The committee specified that the plots were possessions that the brothers should “have hold & enjoy,” characterizing the land as an object that was both productive and pleasurable.[xix] A different kind of dispute arose in the same era in Dedham, Massachusetts, where thirteen landowners fought over the route of a new road that would pass through or close to their properties. The men signed an accord in April 1713 agreeing to the new road, but only “after Seven Yeares or more of Troubles and difficulty.” This document spelled out a clash between an already established system of private ownership and the infrastructural needs of a growing colonial society. “Timothy Gay should have Liberty at the east end of his lott…to Improve and Inclose the way there as his Owne proper propriety,” the agreement specified.[xx] In these settings, as others, the paradoxical freedom to enclose (and modify) defined the nature of land ownership in colonial North America following Europeans’ arrival.


As these and additional archival collections show, American colonists regarded the land they owned as an investment to manage and a renewable system that could bestow continuous wealth on its owners. Such an attitude is particularly apparent in colonists’ exploitation of timber, a resource that was already scarce in Europe by the time the British settled in America. In a 1729 diary entry, Harvard College tutor Henry Flynt described a lot of land that he managed in Maine, less for its present appearance than its future potential. Flynt speculated, “[T]he whole Neck If Setled…upon the Score of Timber which is Cheifly White Oak would be worth a 1000 pound more Especially If the falls were Lowered…so that Sloopes could come up for Timber.”[xxi] Here, Flynt imposed a monetary value on the land that depended on settlement by European Americans, who would extract timber and modify the landscape in order to ship it. Hunger for New England timber resurfaced in a 1747 Massachusetts permit, handwritten on a small slip of paper, that allowed the bearer to “take and use” the timber claimed by the signer, Thomas Farnum.[xxii] Such free license to exploit local forests was far from inconsequential. A 1794 property lease in Kittery, Maine, specified that the tenant “will cut no trees or timber but what may be necessary for fencing & firewood,” showing a concern for dwindling timber stocks less than a decade after the republic’s establishment.[xxiii] By the century’s end, Harvard College was so concerned about managing its firewood expenditures that it acquired a ship, the Cyrus, whose sole duty was to transport timber from New Hampshire and Maine to Boston.[xxiv] Together, these kinds of records can help researchers understand colonial-era legal, political, and economic systems; evolutions in the nature of private and public property; and even environmental change.


Land fueled Harvard College’s rapidly growing wealth during the institution’s first century. Harvard accrued dozens of distinct donations in its early decades, including functional and symbolic silver tableware; Native American artifacts; samples of minerals gifted by the French Republic; framed artwork; and even a petrified fish.[xxv] Though eclectic, such items played a key role in developing Harvard’s early public image as an institution crucial to global cultural and intellectual networks. Even more consequential, however, were the dozens of parcels of land that expanded the school’s presence throughout greater New England. Amidst the economic and political fluctuations of the colonial era, land constituted an offering that would endure and, donors hoped, only increase in value. The Harvard University Archives possess a substantial set of records that detail the history of such gifts.[xxvi] Records of the Harvard Corporation detail the school’s many land holdings at the close of the colonial era, when the institution attempted to include land among its tax exemptions.[xxvii] From the start, Harvard used land ownership as a repository for its growing wealth.


Still, land in colonial America was not solely the domain of European-American men. Though sparser, multiple archival records – including a rare, 1698 pre-nuptial agreement; deeds of sale; and wills – show evidence of women’s land ownership.[xxviii] When women owned land they tended to be widowed, as their social position allowed them to manage finances and property without the association of a father or husband.[xxix] While many of these records testify to the ways in which colonial-era women exercised authority and independence, others show persistent constraints.[xxx] Such was the case in 1708, when Ebenezer Clap of Milton,  Massachusetts, named his wife, Elizabeth, executrix of his estate. In his will, Clap left Elizabeth all of his property, but forbade her to bring a subsequent husband into the house without the approval of Clap’s brother.[xxxi]  Another example is the 1759 diary of Margaret Appleton Holyoke Mascarene, where she recorded the daily challenges associated with managing a household and raising children without the support of her husband, a merchant who traveled for business.[xxxii] Scholars have long defined the American home as the site of women’s labors. Yet Harvard’s archival collections show a more varied view that comprises histories of autonomy, subordination, and subsistence.



In 1731, a writ authorized by King George II of England ordered three men in Watertown, MA, to surrender money or property to answer for a bond owed to the Harvard College treasurer. “For want thereof,” the writ specified, the authorities could “take the Bodys of the said” men instead.[xxxiii] Already in colonial America, the prevailing legal system equated money, land, and a person’s body as entities of potentially equivalent value. Possession of property or cash established one’s most basic existence as a lawful citizen of this particular place. Accordingly, just as objects and land lived on after the death of their owner, so did a person’s credits and debts.[xxxiv] Beginning in the colonial era, things, estates, and money transferred from one generation to the next, increasing or decreasing wealth, setting in motion a stratified American society.

[i] Deed of sale, 1736 May 8 HUG 1228 Box 2, Folder 12. Bordman family. Papers of the Bordman family. HUG 1228, Harvard University Archives.

[ii] Nathaniel Chamberlin account book, Baker Library, Harvard Business School; George Shove daybook, Baker Library, Harvard Business School; William Kilby account book. Baker Library, Harvard Business School.

[iii] Humphrey Howland account books, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.

[iv] Account book of the executors of the Henry Flynt estate, 1760-1767. HUM 27, Harvard University Archives.

[v] Perit, Ruth Webster. Record book of the settlement of the estate of Pelatiah Webster, 1795-1799. HLS MS 1515, Harvard Law School Library.

[vi] Gannett, Caleb, 1748-1818. Papers of Caleb Gannett, 1768-1820. Sales at auction of property of the late Caleb Gannett Esq. of Cambridge, 1818. HUG 1411 Box 1, Folder 13, Harvard University Archives.

[vii] Inventory of property bequeathed from John Erving to his son, George Erving, 1789 December 31. B MS Misc. Boston Medical Library, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Boston, Mass.

[viii] Harvard College Library. Early Catalogs and Shelflists of the Harvard College Library, 1723-1822. UAIII 50.15.30, Harvard University Archives.

[ix] Harvard College Library. Records of books spared from 1764 Harvard Hall fire and subsequent gifts, 1764-1778. "A list of the books belonging to the late Library of Harvard College that were in the hands of the Overseers, Governors, & Students of the College & escap'd the flames," ca. 1764. UAIII 50.27.64, Box 1 Folder 1, Harvard University Archives.

[x] Grew family. Papers of the Grew, Andrews, Norton, and Wigglesworth families, 1738-1884. Wigglesworth, Edward, 1732-1794. Estate of. Inventory of possessions, in various parts of the house; [Cambridge, 1794]. MS Am 1136 (415). Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

[xi] Gannett, Caleb, 1748-1818. Papers of Caleb Gannett, 1768-1820. An inventory of all of the estate of Caleb Gannett late of Cambridge in the county of Middlesex, Esquire, deceased, appraised upon oath by us the subscribers, duly appointed to that service by the Hon. James Prescott Esq. Judge of Probate & wills, in said county of Middlesex, viz., 1818 May 21. HUG 1411 Box 1, Folder 10, Harvard University Archives.

[xii] Bills of lading for the ship Paoli, 1771. Small Manuscript Collection, Harvard Law School Library; Waldo, Jonathan, 1756-1817. Account book of Jonathan Waldo, 1788-1794 (inclusive). B MS b265.1, Countway Library of Medicine; Blanchard, Edward. Edward Blanchard letter book, 1786-1794. Mss:766 1786-1794 B639, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School.

[xiii] Freeman, Nathaniel, 1766-1800. Commonplace book of Nathaniel Freeman, 1786-1787. HUM 41, Harvard University Archives.

[xiv] Shaw, Lemuel, 1781-1861. Letter from Lemuel Shaw to Susanna Shaw, January 3, 1797. HUD 797.2, Harvard University Archives; Otis, James, 1725-1783. Letter from James Otis, Jr. to James Otis, Sr., and portrait print of James Otis Jr., 1743 June 17. HUD 1743.67.1, Harvard University Archives.

[xv] Inventory of dining utensils and cooking supplies maintained by Harvard College Steward as of June 12, 1778. Harvard University. Harvard Commons Records, 1686-1829 (inclusive). College commons records, 1765-1829 (inclusive). UAI 15.250 Box 1, Harvard University Archives.

[xvi] Harvard University. Corporation. Records of grants for work among the Indians, 1720-1812. UAI 20.720, Harvard University Archives.

[xvii] Griffin, Samuel, 1762-1812. Mathematical manuscript, 1783-1784. HUC 8784.353, Harvard University Archives.

[xviii] Bond of indebtedness, 1711. Small Manuscript Collection, Harvard Law School Library.

[xix] [Division of disputed property, Boston], 1711. Small Manuscript Collection, Harvard Law School Library. 

[xx] Howe family. Howe family additional papers, 1662-1839 (inclusive), 1694-1797 (bulk). Dedham, Mass. Citizens. A recital of the proprietors of lands... in Dedham... MS.D.s.; Dedham, 25 Apr 1713. MS Am 1920(8). Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

[xxi] May 23, 1729. Flynt, Henry, 1675-1760. Diary of Henry Flynt, 1723-1747. HUG 1399.18, Harvard University Archives.

[xxii] Howe family. Howe family additional papers, 1662-1839 (inclusive), 1694-1797 (bulk). Farnum, Thomas. [Permit for the removal of timber]. A.D.s.; Andover, 30 Apr 1747. MS Am 1920(11). Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

[xxiii] Shapleigh, Samuel, 1765-1800. Papers of Samuel Shapleigh, 1739/1740-1800. Lease of entire Kittery estate, Samuel Shapleigh to Jacob Remich, Dec. 31, 1793 HUM 57 Box 1, Folder 12, Harvard University Archives.

[xxiv] Harvard University. Corporation. Records relating to Harvard's ownership of the sloop Cyrus, 1793-1798. Statement of trips, 1795. UAI 20.793 Box 1, Folder 5, Harvard University Archives.

[xxv] Correspondence and records related to the Harvard College Plate, 1736-1923. HUB 3790.2, Harvard University Archives; Harvard University. Corporation. Records of gifts and donations, 1643-1955. UAI 15.400, Harvard University Archives. 

[xxvi] Harvard University. Corporation. Records of land and property owned by Harvard University, 1643-1835. UAI 15.750, Harvard University Archives. 

[xxvii] Harvard University. Corporation. Records of the Corporation relating to College tax exemptions, [1797]-1799. A Catalogue of estates in Cambridge belonging to Harvard College, 1799 January 11. UAI 20.799 Box 1, Folder 8, Harvard University Archives.

[xxviii] Hayes, Luke. Pre-nuptial agreement, Farmington, Connecticut, 1698. Small Manuscript Collection, Harvard Law School Library; [Deed of sale] 1705. Small Manuscript Collection, Harvard Law School Library; Bordman family. Papers of the Bordman family, 1686-1837. Will, 1783 April 15. HUG 1228 Box 2, Folder 46, Harvard University Archives.

[xxix] Phillips, Mary. Deed of sale for land in Boston, sold by Mary Phillips to William Fairfield, drawn up and signed by Samuel Phillips, 1713 May 29. HUM 45, Harvard University Archives.

[xxx]  Deed of release of property, October 21, 1712. Small Manuscript Collection, Harvard Law School Library.

[xxxi] Clapp, Ebenezer, 1643-1712. Will of Ebenezer Clap, 10 June 1708. Small Manuscript Collection, Harvard Law School Library.

[xxxii] Mascarene, Margaret Holyoke, 1726-1792. Diary of Margaret Appleton Holyoke Mascarene, 1759. HUM 92, Harvard University Archives.

[xxxiii] Writ for the attachment of goods or estate; action brought by Edward Hutchinson, Treasurer of Harvard College, 1731 June 5. HUA 731.95, Harvard University Archives.

[xxxiv] Account of bonds and notes in the estate of Thomas Hubbard, 1729-1773 HUM 38 Box 1, Folder 3. Hubbard, Thomas, 1702-1773. Papers of Thomas Hubbard and Mary Jackson Hubbard, 1729-1779. HUM 38, Harvard University Archives.