chapter  5
Underpinning a plantation
A material culture approach to consumerism at George Washington’s Mount Vernon
ByEleanor Breen
Pages 21

The young George Washington's substantial investment in livery highlights the role of clothing in maintaining a plantation's social order. Artifacts excavated from the soil layers of Mount Vernon, Washington's home plantation, give us pause to consider how he and other elite planters afforded their burgeoning gentility. By acknowledging the unmistakable economic realities of colonial America, one might assume that the material worlds of Washington and Negro Juby were visually striking in their contrast. To call the mid-18th-century expansion of consumerism outwards and downwards a revolution risks ignoring or glossing over just how unequally individuals of differing socio-economic groups experienced the radical shift in access to goods. While additional research is needed on non-elite consumer behavior as reflected in archaeological record through the re-analysis of old collections and the excavation of new, enslaved individuals living at Mount Vernon eagerly participated in the marketplace, formally and informally, in ways that suggest an upending of social order through the power of material culture.