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At the GRS Symposium: When in Boston, stop into Mr. Abbot’s

  • 18th century consumption:
    18th century consumption:  Alexandra Macdonald is the winner of the William & Mary Graduate Studies Advisory Board Award for Excellence in the Humanities and Social Sciences. She will speak at the Graduate Research Symposium on March 16.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Before Amazon, even before Filene’s, Bostonians were served by Samuel Abbot’s shop on the corner of Wing’s Lane.

Alexandra Macdonald has been looking into the 18th-century “theatre of consumption” that was Abbot’s shop, as well as his customers and the retail culture of colonial America, where even the residents of Puritan Boston were interested in consumption. She drew on copious correspondence and mercantile accounts and she even was able to run Abbot’s desk to earth.

Macdonald is a second-year Ph.D. candidate in the Lyon G. Tyler Department of History at William & Mary. She received the William & Mary Graduate Studies Advisory Board Award for Excellence in the Humanities and Social Sciences for her paper “The Shop on the Corner of Wing’s Lane: Retail Spaces in Colonial Boston.”

Macdonald will speak on Samuel Abbot and the Boston of his day during the 18th Annual Graduate Research Symposium, held at the Sadler Center on the campus of William & Mary on March 15 & 16, 2019. The symposium is hosted by William & Mary's Graduate Student Association of Arts & Sciences and the Arts & Sciences Office of Graduate Studies and Research.

Macdonald drew on multiple sources to conjure up the retail shopping experience of mid-18th century colonial America.

“In many ways, re-materializing Abbot's shop was part treasure hunt, part archival research, part layering of material information and part luck,” Macdonald said.

Abbot’s shop no longer stands, although Wing’s Lane is still there in downtown Boston. She notes that scholars have been investigating English retail spaces of the same era, correcting mistaken notions about retail spaces.

“Eighteenth-century shops are no longer seen as the dark, unappealing places they have been depicted as by scholars of the 19-century retail revolution, and instead are now viewed as carefully constructed spaces designed to optimize consumption,” Macdonald writes.

And Macdonald presents evidence that Samuel Abbot’s shop was as au courant as a discriminating shopper was likely to find in a colonial capital. Abbot knew the importance of marketing, even if he didn’t understand the term as it’s used today.

For instance, there were his shop windows. Macdonald found records documenting purchase of six window panes as well as hardware and framing, evidence that Abbot believed in investing in merchandising.

“A large front window would have offered passing shoppers an opportunity to look at the goods on display in Abbot’s shop,” she said. “This type of façade would also have provided much needed natural light to illuminate the objects for sale inside.”

Macdonald adds that Abbot topped his glass-fronted shop front with his name in large gilt lettering and the overall effect likely was nearly equal to many English shops. Boston was known as “the hub” from early days, and residents from miles around came to do business and to shop. Samuel Abbot had a great deal of competition — the Revere silversmith shop was just around the corner.

“In the six-block radius around Abbot’s shop, retail spaces dominated the built landscape,” she writes. “With an abundance of choice, colonial consumers became more particular about the objects they purchased. Simply having the proper goods was no longer an indicator of market success. Abbot needed to actively present his goods in a manner that highlighted their fashionable and desirable qualities, and provide an appropriate space for consumption.”

Boston of the 1750s carries a reputation of a dour, puritanical place. The Puritan firebrand Jonathan Edwards premiered his famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon in 1741 in his Northampton, Massachusetts, church. But in those days Northampton was a long way from Boston, where you could step into Abbot’s, away from the prevailing belief that any minute now God might pick you up like a spider and fling you into Hell.

You could find some very un-Puritan merchandise at Abbot’s, along with tea, cloth, spectacles and other quotidian needs of the day. Macdonald said that Abbot’s stocking of “everything and anything” sets him apart from London shopkeepers, who had begun to specialize.

Anyone looking for luxury goods would be well advised to head for Wing’s Lane. Macdonald refers to Samuel Abbot as an “arbiter of taste” and cites correspondence to his suppliers in England. Abbot ordered not just snuffboxes, but bespoke “gay snuff boxes” as well as “very large & good brilliant earring stones.”

People came to Abbot’s from Boston as well as from surrounding towns. Macdonald had to extrapolate the dimensions and much of the furnishings, but she notes “the shop’s design was specially constructed for the task of selling.”

Macdonald says evidence indicates that the 1754-era shop contained at least 71 feet of shelving. It’s likely that the two side walls were lined with shelves holding bolts of fabric. A locked glass case displayed the gay snuff boxes and other expensive (and easily pocketed) goods. Other delicate luxury goods — ribbons, stays, feathers — were kept in locked drawers.

Samuel Abbot prospered, particularly after he married Sarah Kneeland, a widow, “and thus took on her property” as well as the stock from a shop left over from a shop operated by Sarah’s late husband.

Abbot was thriving to the point of being able to execute significant renovations to the shop in 1758. He replaced his countertops, added two display cases and painted the edges of all the shelves “a Prussian blue.” He also replaced the floor, and most importantly, had a partition constructed that created his back room, separated from the sales floor by a glass door.

Abbot would invite favored customers into the back room, an office area that Macdonald said doubled as a VIP space. The back room was kept warm by a brick fireplace and dominated by Abbot’s desk. She traced the desk through a search of museum and private collections and finally hit pay dirt in an examination of auction catalogs.

“While I was not able to see the desk in person, I was able to get images from the auction house that gave me a fairly good idea of what it looked like and how it functioned,” she said.

The desk had an array of drawers, doors, nooks and even secret compartments, “a microcosm of the layers of display, concealment and selectiveness contained in the shop,” Macdonald writes.

She notes that the inventory of the back room reveals a space jointly divided to commerce (ink pots, money drawers, a scale) and entertainment (assorted chairs, tea service and a “fine shovel, tongs,” etc.).

“Back rooms provided a secondary space in which a level of domestic sociability could be enacted that extended beyond the perhaps more fleeting interactions that took place on the sales floor,” Macdonald explains. “In turn, these spaces invited the consumer to interact with the retailer on a more personal level.”

A visit to the back room could be quite diverting for Abbot’s customers. Macdonald has found evidence of people walking out without the goods they came to purchase, returning to their homes throughout Massachusetts, only to sit down and write, requesting that Abbot send them their forgotten merchandise.

A letter from Nathan Torzin of Andover states he had purchased “3 pieces of plain lawn” and walked out without the fabric he bought. Likewise, Samuel Emmerson wrote a year later requesting that Abbot send his forgotten goods by coaster to Newbury.

“While it is possible that both men simply forgot their goods in a momentary lapse of care, it is more probable that they left their goods behind following a prolonged interaction with Abbot in the back room of the shop,” Macdonald writes. “In this way, the shop’s architecture facilitated sales while shaping the processes of consumption that took place within them.”