Digging up the American consumer

What archaeologists learn from the things we’ve buried

Paul Mullins

Paul Mullins

Understanding the American consumer society--how we shop, what advertising does to us, why certain stores and products stick and others don’t--has become an obsession of economists, marketers, even psychologists. What we consume offers insights into not only the wider culture, but also our own personal values and motives.

In today’s society, data abound to answer such questions. But there’s another way to explore American consumerism: by going through the trash. Americans’ buying habits have deep roots, and when it comes to telling the longer story of American consumption, archeology is emerging as an important tool. By digging, sifting, and analyzing what Americans have discarded over time, archeologists have been retrieving the material culture that surrounded Americans from the 17th century onwards. And they are piecing together a fascinating picture of American consumers: not only the food people ate and the luxury items they splurged on, but also the ways that shopping came to reflect the identities Americans wanted to present to the world.


It’s a topic Paul Mullins, a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University and president of the Society for Historical Archaeology, has taken up in a new book, “The Archaeology of Consumer Culture,” that offers a survey of all the work that is being done to try to better understand how Americans have shopped.

Archeologists have found mid-18th-century toothbrushes in Annapolis, Md., that show the emergence of a culture of physical discipline. One archeologist looking at the quality of plates and silverware between 1780 and 1820 found women in particular investing more money on these items as dinner evolved into an increasingly important domestic ritual. And some things remain remarkably consistent: Whether we are talking about a 19th-century porcelain tea set or expensive Adidas running shoes today, Americans have always bought objects that aren’t just useful, but project an image they want society to see. Investigating the material remnants of the past, Mullins believes, is the best way to better understand this critical aspect of who we are today.

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Mullins spoke with Ideas by phone from Indianapolis.

IDEAS: Is there debate among archeologists about why people consume what they do? You suggest as much in the book.

MULLINS: There is a picture of consumption that’s existed in scholarship for a very long time that focuses on the practical realities--who buys what, how much does it cost, what does the market provide. It looks at shopping as being relatively rational, and even predictable. But for most of us, that’s not at all what materiality is like--or shopping itself. These are relatively emotional activities. I really strongly believe that consumption is less about reflecting who we are--even though that’s clearly a fundamental dimension of it--as much as it’s about who we wish to be.


IDEAS: Can you give me a concrete historical example?

MULLINS: Much of my work is focused on African-Americans, especially in the 19th century, and how they act out a particular ambition to citizenship. So one of the things we see in archeological sites after the Civil War, after Emancipation, among many, many African-Americans, is that they begin religiously buying by the brand--people found a brand and they tended to stay with it, and don’t buy tons of locally produced goods. For folks of color that’s partly a response to many local racist marketplaces in which they had not been treated fairly. But a lot of it is that African-Americans at some level understood consumption as being a consequential citizen right, as allowing them to join in a larger identity beyond their immediate surroundings.

IDEAS: How do you deal with more perishable material, like food? Wouldn’t you get a skewed image of consumption if you only focused on those items that could survive being buried for 200 years?

MULLINS: We actually have a lot of archeological data that speak to food consumption....Fish is actually a good example. It’s one of those things that you find in the Chesapeake, in Baltimore, D.C., and Virginia. We see lots and lots of fish scales early on in the 18th century into mid-century and then the scales kind of disappear and then we only see fish bones, and that’s probably a transition from buying things in the street to going to stores, because when you get into the store you are having the fish already pre-cleaned.

IDEAS: We already have such rich written sources for what America was like over the last 400 years. Why do all this work?

MULLINS: If we work off of primary texts alone, the argument among archeologists is that that is a very partial picture that doesn’t represent a whole lot of America, written with its own biases.

IDEAS: So you feel that you can see the roots of our consumption and shopping patterns?

MULLINS: By the 18th century and the Revolution, one of the things that is happening is the development of a marketplace you or I would recognize, with a fair amount of mass produced goods and class distinctions and patterns. And some things that are in every household begin to appear. Tea consumption is a really good example. And that’s something that’s very easy for us to see archeologically because we see the introduction of teacups and spoons. We also have probate inventories so we can look at what people have at the time of their death. Tea starts as a relatively elite activity but it very rapidly becomes something every American is participating in, but often in idiosyncratic ways. Some people drink out of saucers, some drink out of very fine Chinese porcelain, some folks drink out of fabulous-looking English ceramics with big tea services.

IDEAS: What do you think from today will puzzle archeologists in the future? You mention in the book how confusing a Humvee might be to a future archeologist.

MULLINS: It’s true. And Hummer users have a variety of visions of what that thing means to them. What they think other people see in them. Is it a class status item? Is it a particular kind of aesthetics? A show of patriarchy? It can be all those things. At the end of the day, a Barbie is still an 11-and-a-half-inch piece of plastic, but what it means to any given consumer can be a really wide range of stuff. And I think some of the best archeological scholarship focuses on how a wide range of consumers can target a particular range of goods and give it particular kinds of meaning that reflect how they see the world.

Gal Beckerman is a journalist and author. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” was named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post in 2010, and was just released in paperback.
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