Conspicuous production : agricultural and domestic material culture in Virginia, 1700-1900

Bell, Alison Kay, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Deetz, James, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Perdue, Charles L., Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Glassie, Henry, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Hymes, Dell H., Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia
Wells, Ann, Dean's Office, Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia

This dissertation investigates questions of ambition, priority, hierarchy, and social relations in historic Virginia by studying agricultural and domestic material culture. The project concentrates on 405 probate inventories recorded between 1700 and 1900 in Louisa and Essex Counties, and on four archaeological sites in Louisa County: the Dabney, Moore, Martin, and Dickenson Sites.

The primary contention of the study is that a dynamic of conspicuous production was more central to the creation, maintenance, and alteration of social identity in rural Virginia than the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods was. Domestic amenities played supporting roles in day-to-day social relations, but at center stage were items related to agricultural production. The abilities and accomplishments of most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Virginia estate holders were visible not through their leisure but through their labor - either through their own work or through their management of an enslaved labor force.

The persistent agricultural orientation of domestic assemblages in Virginia suggests that the material lives of most planters did not fundamentally change as a result of the eighteenth-century consumer revolution. Crops, farm tools, and livestock dominated personal estates and the physical landscape in both Essex and Louisa County. The possessions of a small Tidewater elite may have dwarfed those of other planters - Tidewater and Piedmont alike - but aside from this small group, the two areas closely resembled each other demographically and materially. Planters of widely divergent means living in both parts of rural Virginia usually invested more heavily in farm production than in domestic amenities.

The ways that new goods and fashions moved through the social hierarchy are complex, and an emulative model of lesser planters' "aping" the prosperous cannot account for the full range of consumer behavior. Emulation was not the sole force animating people's interactions with the material world. Attention to the documents rural Virginians wrote argues that their commitment to agricultural productivity was geared not so much toward impressing community members as to providing their progeny sufficient resources to be economically viable.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Volumes 1-2

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