Learning to shop in Zion: the consumer revolution in Great Basin Mormon culture, 1847-1910

Learning to shop in Zion: the consumer revolution in Great Basin Mormon culture, 1847-1910

Greg (“Fritz”) Umbach

Scholars of American culture have invoked consumption to account for a diverse range of phenomena. Consumer culture, we are told, exploits women (or perhaps empowers them), unravels communities (or perhaps defines them), erodes the state (or perhaps expands it), and robs individuals of identity (or perhaps provides them with the raw material for one). Seeking answers in origins, historians hoped to discover a decisive moment of cultural disruption when people as “users of things” became “consumers of commodities.” (1)

Instead, they uncovered–it would seem–both as many consumer revolutions as there were scholars in the field, and a curious methodological quandary. Relying on probate records and trade statistics, many scholars “backdated” the birth of consumer culture to the early modern period. (2) But by pushing back the origins of consumerism, one is less likely to encounter the very sources–such as diaries and letters–that might shed light on the changing cultural meanings of consumption to the participants themselves. Understandably, then, an adjustment to the timetable of events often forced an alteration in the focus of inquiry. Although scholars might want to trace the attitudes, beliefs, and motivations of past consumers, early records frequently limited research to simply what was consumed and when. Further, no period offered the clear cleavage between having and not having access to goods that might serve as a springboard for examination into the details and dynamics of consumption. What is required is a test case wherein an expansion in the “world of goods” occurred sufficiently late to leave an imprint on accessible personal documents, and with enough speed to telescope creeping and imperceptible transitions into abrupt and observable transformations. (3)

In many ways, nineteenth-century Great Basin Mormon culture provides just such an opportunity. Brigham Young’s removal of his people to Utah beyond the reach of Gentile persecution also extracted the Saints from the web of the national economy. The seclusion of the resulting frontier conditions was exacerbated by the desire of Church leaders to create an economically self-sufficient Zion whose trade relations with Babylon would be at an irreducible minimum. As Young said, it was not the armies of the Gentiles he feared, but their merchants and goods. (4)

And although self-sufficiency remained a dream for the Saints who were obliged to trade with the East, the degree of Mormon “market embededness” was initially remarkably limited. Weak commercial connections with eastern distribution networks combined with a powerful local theocratic leadership to produce a starkly reduced material culture unusual for the time. In particular, Mormons encountered a retail marketplace of limited consumer choices and–at times–pronounced scarcity. The approach, however, and eventual arrival of the transcontinental railway in 1869, quickly brought significant and interrelated changes to Utah. The attenuated commercial links between merchants in Zion and wholesalers in the East solidified, the pace of banking development accelerated, and the quantity and velocity of hard currency in local circulation increased. Fueled by expanded participation in the national economy, retail activity–both Gentile and Mormon–surged to bring both a greater availability and, crucially, a larger variety of goods to the region. Importantly, this take-off in consumption occurred in a culture with a well-developed sense of its historical mission, and so left a paper trail wider and deeper than other such consumer revolutions.

This particularly rich archival inheritance permits what picayune efforts to identify consumerist “firsts” or close readings of advertising companies’ internal memos cannot: an exploration into the crystallization and consequences of consumer culture with the individual occupying the center–rather than the margins–of the historical stage. In so doing, a study of Zion’s particular revolution sheds light on long-standing questions regarding the relative roles of external forces and personal choices in the construction of consumer culture.

Moreover, the timing of Utah’s truncated consumer revolution possesses particular significance for historians. The unusually detailed vista of consumer culture afforded by the Mormon documentary record notably opens onto what scholars have recently identified as the “unexplored territory” of consumption: the years between 1825 and 1875. Surprisingly, as the historian Lawrence Glickman noted in 1999, we have “few studies” of the “consumer ideologies and practices during the ‘market revolution.'” These years witnessed both a multiplication in the variety of commodities available and the appearance of cheaper newspapers, magazines, and books. Moreover, a significantly expanded postal system ensured a wide dissemination of such material. (5) The economy, then, generated both new material choices and cultural resources that converged at mid-century in an unprecedented fashion. Surely, as the historian Daniel Howe has suggested, this period offered new and significant opportunities for “self-definition to consumers.” (6)

Indeed, white Americans of the time could hardly have escaped what the minister William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) celebrated in a widely read and reprinted 1838 tract as “Self-Culture”: the “power of … determining and forming ourselves.” Historians have charted the diverse ways notions of fashioning an unique self engrossed Americans during these years as never before; tracing the influences and manifestations of this quest for personal identity in Evangelical Protestantism, sexuality, political parties, and popular literature. Accordingly, an analysis of the transformation of consumer thought in Zion helps fill gaps of both chronology and theme by providing an understanding–through the lens of consumption–of the commercial and social changes associated with the “market revolution.” (7)

But understanding the changing Mormon experience of consumption unveils a process of far greater complexity and significance than the familiar historical tales of either more and more consumer goods entering households further and further down the social order or of genteel aspirations diffusing ever outward from mansions in cultured metropoles to farmhouses in distant hinterlands. The fashioning of the new vision of goods in Mormondom required of its participants, and can divulge to its students, a fundamental reordering of the relationship between personal possessions and individual identities.

The changes in Zion’s consumer marketplace brought about by the railroad exposed Mormons to commodity choices that were both novel and significantly larger than they had experienced previously in the territory–and they eagerly pursued the new consumer possibilities to be found in imported merchandise. But if the restricted range of goods available to Mormons before the railroad had limited the significance they attached to consumer decisions, the explosion of commodity selection after 1869 invited the Saints to interpret such choices as more socially meaningful; one’s circle of possessions became a register of socially interpretable expressive preferences. But the railroad–and the imported goods it carried–not only disrupted the economic life of the Kingdom of Zion; it also profoundly altered its symbolic life.

To both make, and make sense of, the consumer choices offered by the sudden magnification of imported goods with necessarily non-local meaning, Mormons increasingly turned to an emerging national bourgeois sensibility expressed in a range of popular literature. Mormons’ swelling reliance upon this broader net of cultural knowledge to decipher the goods around them washed away the symbolic salience of local points of reference that had previously given possessions meaning. These two novel developments–the possibility of making consumer choices and the means by which to ascribe a widely understood characterlogical significance to those choices–propelled Mormons to embrace consumption as the privileged vehicle for subjective expression and personal identification.

The changes in thinking about material goods that occurred in Mormondom are neatly encapsulated in two letters–separated by two decades–written by Isaiah Coombs. Coombs, inspired by the promises of the Mormon gathering of the materially-poor-yet-spiritually-pure in a restored Zion in the West, emigrated in 1855 and worked as a farmer and an itinerant schoolteacher in a variety of towns in southern Utah until his death in 1889. In the first of these letters, written during the unusually cold December of 1862 from the small town of Payson, Coombs reassured his father back East that life in Zion was not marked by privation: “We have got our clothes up at last … We are prouder of our home made clothes that we would be of so much silk.” Coombs, taking pride in the independence his household had achieved through home production, encouraged his father “by all means (to) get sheep as fast as you can and not be dependent on others for your clothing.” Roughly twenty years later, Isaiah wrote with his wife Fanny to his granddaughter, “grandma will make you (a) skirt like the one in the fashion plates we looked at.” (8)

While the Coombs household would continue to make its own clothing well into the 1880s, the letters reveal the extent to which the meaning of the clothing transformed dramatically during that period. Writing to his father in that earlier letter, Coombs assessed the pride he found in independence by likening it to the pride that could stem from owning silk, a classic example of aristocratic finery. Silk’s traditional scarcity–emerging from both its foreign origins and time-consuming production–made it a useful point of comparison for Coombs. Certainly, Mormons recognized that some objects required greater effort or dearer materials to manufacture and so might command a higher price. Some goods, accordingly, could draw attention to their owners’ wealth while others mirrored a humbler station. But for the Saints, such differences reflected static qualities assumed to originate with an object’s production. And so, both the cultural meaning and relative value of goods was common knowledge: silk was rare and costly, while homespun was ordinary and affordable. Because the ascribed meanings of goods were both widely known and fairly stable, the discernment of such meanings could not reliably serve as a means to distinguish individuals.

Social distinctions might emerge from one’s ability to pay for objects, but not from the capacity to know their symbolic content. In this materialist assessment of goods, value as such emerged more through the quantities of labor time a good’s production required than from the social comprehension its consumption expressed. Later, however, Coombs would rework how he understood the world of objects.

Writing to his granddaughter in the later letter–penned some two decades after the letter to his father–Isaiah stressed how closely Fanny’s work with manufactured cloth–now readily available after the railroad’s arrival–might match fashion plates of presumably eastern origin. In this new calculus, Coombs replaced his earlier point of comparison, silk, with fashion. He thus invited his granddaughter to appreciate the gift of the skirt not in reference to the human labor silk’s production required–but rather to the social knowledge the selection of fashionable clothing both required and revealed. The potential worth of the proposed skirt, then, lay less in its ability to represent possession of wealth, and more in its potential to communicate awareness of fashion–his wife’s in selecting the pattern from many, and his granddaughter’s in wearing the final product. Consumption, not production, determined worth in this new understanding. (9)

Coombs’s earlier yardstick for objects assumed that the cultural meaning of goods was common knowledge: silk was rare and valuable, while homespun was available and ordinary. Social distinctions, then, might both emerge from and be reflected by one’s ability to pay for objects, but the competence required to discern the social significance of such possessions received much less attention in his thinking. Accordingly, Coombs’s initial understanding of goods offered him a certain freedom from striving for many of them; the most desirable possessions were naturally expensive and so safely beyond the reach of a frontier farmer like himself.

In contrast, Coombs’s new yardstick presented troubling possibilities. By presuming that the value of goods stemmed more from their cultural meaning than their labor costs, Coombs’s new reckoning inflated the social significance of a variety of low-cost possessions. Although inexpensive to produce and consume, such goods could speak volumes about their owners by embodying their decision to purchase one object and not another. Although wearing silk had never been plausible for Coombs and his community, these new, affordable goods introduced the prospect of making socially significant consumer choices. This new possibility, in turn, meant that one’s grasp of the social knowledge the new commodities seemed to reflect might be exposed to neighbor and stranger alike. And so a visit to the frontier store–whose shelves now bore a significantly broader selection of merchandise–suddenly became fraught with novel social risks.

The diaries and letters of ordinary Mormons like Isaiah Coombs, as well as those of his more elite brethren, reveal a striking re-conceptualization of the meaning of consumer choices beginning between 1867 and 1875. These changes worked their way through Mormon culture at various paces in different places, but the overall transformation remains dramatic. While even in the earliest settlement period Mormons had found social meaning in goods, two critical aspects of how Mormon culture understood and used objects distinguish those years from what would come later. First, Mormons often assumed that the social meaning of material goods would both emerge from and be mediated by the local community. Personal interaction in the production and consumption of goods determined to a large degree how Mormons perceived the meaning of objects. Second, Mormons initially understood those meanings as limited to public-and-ascribed rather than private-and-chosen aspects of identity. Goods in this period, accordingly, might reflect one’s wealth and standing in the community or embody one’s social role as a craftsman contributing to the self-sufficiency of the local community, but they spoke little about a private or unique selfhood. In short, such goods merely confirmed a status that already possessed multiple sources in Zion’s social, political and economic realms.

After the late 1860s, however, Mormons began to overlay a new vision of commodities on top of this older use of goods. The railroad’s arrival meant Mormons confronted a rising tide of imported eastern commodities with necessarily non-local meanings. To make sense of such goods, Mormons increasingly turned to an extra-local system of social meaning. In doing so, they transformed how they understood the material world. While Mormons before the late 1860s had tended to view goods through a lens shaped to a large degree by local experience, after 1870 they frequently made sense of possessions by drawing upon an emerging national bourgeois sensibility expressed in a range of popular literature. This new sensibility encouraged Mormons to comprehend objects through a larger aesthetic prism made salient by the broadly distributed, industrially produced, and commercially marketed goods. Although Mormons’ heightened alertness to this aesthetic system allowed them to attribute meaning to the imported commodities around them, it also offered fewer openings to actively partake in the construction of that meaning. In short, as Mormons increasingly understood the material world through this new sensibility, the ascribed cultural significance of their possessions became both less local and less participatory.

But even as the Mormons increasingly lost the ability to construct meaning for the goods they imported, the explosion in commodity choice ushered in by the railroad obliged the Saints to place ever greater value upon such meanings. After 1869, the Mormons encountered commodity choices that were both novel and significantly larger than they had experienced previously in the territory. Fabrics, china, watches, and other goods spilled forth from local stores and agents in a dizzying array, often varying more in color, shape, and design than in price. Thus, the range of merchandise expanded not only vertically by price, but horizontally by appearance. This increase in commodity differentiation made each purchase more significant, for–as theorists of a variety of academic stripes have demonstrated–meaning emerges from explicit or implicit contrasts established within specific contexts. (10) This insight applied to the world of goods, accordingly, suggests that the precision, and thus value, of the cultural meanings individuals might ascribe to a specific object increase as the number of other objects that might have been purchased in substitution increases–for each additional, potential alternative expands the number of implicit contrasts with the chosen good. After the late 1860s, then, Mormons began to place greater value on the selection of goods by themselves and others because each purchase could now establish contrasts with a growing number of excluded alternatives. For Mormons of this period, one’s circle of possessions became a socially meaningful monument to individual selection.

Accordingly, possessions now spoke not only to their owner’s wealth, but also to their choices within difference. And so each good consumed rendered solid what had until then not been perceived easily with the eyes, nor expressed readily with words: one’s awareness of the fluid world of cultural meanings. Consequently, Mormons increasingly understood objects to embody perceived personal differences beyond income–possessions became seen as interpretable expressions of a unique inner self. Goods now not only reflected status, but revealed personhood.

Understanding goods to embody social categories and relationships, Mormons began to “think” with commodities. The objects Mormons once viewed as discrete entities increasingly jelled for them into a cohesive system of goods held together by novel symbolic relationships–often drawn from and shaped by popular literature–that associated commodities with abstract concepts far beyond economic class.

Before the Railroad

Mormons in the 1850s and the early 1860s were neither un- or anti-consumers, those elusive objects of the “pre-industrial mentalite” hunt. (11) Pioneer Utah was no pre-industrial Eden, so striving for the rewards of the next world that it turned an indifferent eye to the goods of this one. Rather, Mormons submitted bills to each other accurate to the half-cent, eagerly sought hard currency despite the exhortations of Church leaders, and penned requests for objects from the East and Europe with one hand even as the other pointed an accusing finger towards Babylon. (12)

If Mormons were never “un-consumers,” neither did they put goods solely to utilitarian purposes. While the hard-scrabble nature of life in settlement Utah might logically suggest that functionality would dictate consumption, Mormons often desired goods as much for social as practical reasons. Mormons saw in goods the opportunity to display public aspects of social identity as well as mark shared experiences of community life. Objects might betoken financial standing, local pride in artisanal competence, or the webs of mutual dependence among neighbors that contributed to community self-sufficiency. Yet crucial aspects of this earlier use of goods as markers of social identity differentiate it from what would come later.

First, because the terms by which Mormons assessed goods were familiar to almost everyone and relatively stable, Mormons assumed that possessions more clearly reflected a public identity than expressed a private self-hood. To understand that silk bespoke wealth while homespun suggested simpler means (as in Coombs’s letters) did not require social information that was rare or difficult to acquire. Rather, the community shared the knowledge of the ascribed meanings of goods–rendering the discernment of such meanings a poor way to distinguish individuals. Accordingly, possessions more readily testified to an amassing of wealth than to an accumulation of social knowledge with which individuals might differentiate themselves from others. So while Mormons clearly understood certain goods as announcements of a public identity within the community, they rarely looked to such objects as manifestations of an unique, inner self.

Second, Mormons expected that local patterns of production and consumption would to a large degree shape the meanings ascribed to possessions. Objects acquired social meaning through their roles in personal interaction within specific contexts. Mormons, for example, understood that such objects could articulate a community identity. The world of goods surrounded Mormons in a web of social meaning–but that web often resonated with the lived experience of the Saints.

One does not have to look very far for evidence that Mormons in early Utah valued goods precisely because they could confirm economic status. Mormon furniture production at this time, for example, testifies to the desire not just to have furniture, but to have furniture that displayed wealth. Scandinavian craftsmen found their traditional skills of graining and painting furniture in high demand by their Anglo-American brethren, who could not acquire furniture crafted from the rarer and more expensive hardwoods unobtainable in Utah. By placing a faux-grain and paint upon the softwoods indigenous to the region, Scandinavian artisans were able to create furniture that resembled the hardwood items that been costlier in the East. (13)

Even in the most extreme of frontier conditions, goods could become vehicles for jostling displays of status. For example, while on a mission to the Mormon outpost in Los Vegas in 1855, Areot Lucious Hale (b. 1828 p. 1848 d. 1911) wrote his wife, Olive, in Grantsville, Utah to ask her to send him her “likeness and the childrens in one graph” because:



eny (sic) of them I have got as good looking a woman as eny of them.

If you have them taken Put on your finest if you got jewelry, if not

borrow. (14)

It does not require Thorstein Veblen to recognize the elements of status competition in Hale’s letter–the comparison of his wife’s physical beauty and the commemoration of her possession (even if momentary) of jewelry. Judging from their personal documents, Mormons clearly understood certain goods as validations of economic standing within the community

Powerful as it was, status competition was not the only social purpose to which the Saints put goods in early Utah. Mormons understood that possessions might embody social meanings tied to the workings of a community. Wares might reflect a variety of aspects of local life: pride in town craftsmen, the bonds of kin and neighbors, or shared experiences. The choice of goods during the settlement period, while limited, reflected local patterns of production and consumption–patterns that strongly shaped the meaning Mormons ascribed to objects. Although the influx of eastern commodities would eventually encourage Mormons to transform how they understood possessions, Mormons in the settlement period frequently understood the meaning of goods through reference to their local experience.

“Bespoken” work characterized production in Utah throughout the 1850s and early 1860s; indeed, Mormons filled their personal papers with detailed accounts of such activities. (15) The face-to-face quality inherent to the artisanal production and local exchange of wares provided the opportunity for much neighborly mingling. Mormon accounts of the crafting and bartering of goods elide easily and almost imperceptibly with their descriptions of social relations. In 1855, Patty Sessions, for example described in her journal that her town of Bountiful held a dance until two in the morning to celebrate the completion a carpet that took six weeks to finish. (16)

The highly localized nature of both production and consumption in Utah at the time meant that a certain style of objects might be common in one area, yet rare in a neighboring one. The architectural historian Thomas Carter, for example, has carefully documented the prevalence of a specific style of cupboards in the Sanpete Valley of southern Utah between 1860 and 1880, a style largely absent in other Mormon-settled areas. The “split-spindle cupboards” represent for Carter “a distinctive local form,” fusing the folk traditions of the valley’s Danish immigrants with a popular taste for painted furniture in a way unique to the Sanpete. Likewise, the historian Elaine Thatcher has noted in her study of furniture from the Cache Valley in northern Utah that “most of the professional furniture making was done by one or two craftsman in a community. A community’s furniture style would reflect the skills and techniques of those one or two craftsmen, causing the styles of furniture to differ slightly from town to town.” (17)

Goods in Mormondom, then, might be tightly woven through their particular production and consumption into the workings of small communities, and so hold meanings specific to individual towns. The recollections of one Mormon growing up in Payson, Utah, during the 1850s succinctly capture the manner in which the significance of goods might be highly localized in settlement Utah:


shoe made by this artisan was to be highly prized; and there was not

a child in the settlement who wore neater footwear, or a young man at

the dance who was more proud of his boots, than the boys whose father

was Thomas P. Cloward. (18)

Isaiah Coombs provides insight into how such local wares encouraged those involved in their production to value them. Writing in his diary in 1866, Coombs remarked that:

Have been helping my wife put down her new carpet today. I furnished

her the cotton yarn some time ago and she furnished the rags and

sister Julia Simons has wove them into a beautiful carpet that covers

the floor of our front room completely…. I think it is the prettiest

rag carpet I ever saw. (19)

For Coombs, the occasion of laying a new carpet is a time not to record the appearance of the carpet–which he barely describes–but rather to detail the individual contributions of labor that made it possible. The carpet, for Coombs, stands at the intersection of his labor, his wife’s, and that of their neighbor. Likewise, when the local mechanics and artisans’ associations in Parawon–the S.A.D.A. & M Society–held a fair in his town, Coombs took pride in the community’s production of goods, noting that “It is quite a credible affair, the dry goods are a credit to any community.” The clerk of the Co-Op Stock Company in the tiny and isolated town of Pinto summed up the bundle of local sentiments Mormon recognized in craft production when he remarked, “Our little town’s dry goods swell the heart to see such work. Br. O.’s knives are as fine as his friendship. I wouldn’t live elsewhere for a pretty sum.” (20)

In short, the symbolism Mormons attributed to possessions often invoked their lived experience. But even when Mormons did attribute to goods meanings beyond the strictly personal or immediately local, they drew upon a system of signification that was both shared and stable. Mormons in settlement Utah assumed that although items might be difficult or expensive to acquire, their social meanings were not. Mormons took for granted that preferences for one good over another were shared by most within the community–so neither a specific preference or a collection of them carried any particular social weight.

Indeed, prior to the late 1860s, Mormons rarely spoke of selection in relation to individuals and their possessions. Words that might suggest a social significance attached to an individual’s commodity preferences–such as “taste,” “choice,” or “selection”–are almost entirely absent from Mormon discussion of material possessions in this period. Instead, when describing their admiration or desire for objects, Mormons employed a language largely limited to the cost or scarcity of such items.

Thus, although Mormons prior the late 1860s often characterized goods as “fine” or “rich,” they rarely spoke of an individual’s “fine” or “cultured” taste. Harriet Bradley in 1869, for example, wrote her brother to describe one home she admired for being both “large” and “furnished richly,” while noting that another house had been “furnished expensive.” Martha Spence recorded in her diary in 1856 that Allen Livingstion’s “fox skin” robes “looked very rich” and were “much admired” in her town. Martha Cox recalled that in 1866 when she was relieved of her Sunday School duties in St. George in favor of a Miss Romney from Salt Lake City, her students “beamed with pleasure over the change of teachers,” for Miss Romney was “very richly clad and glistening rings gleamed underneath … silk mitts … She had breast pins and … ear jewels,” while Cox herself was the “sorry opposite in my home-made dress and home-made shoes.” (21) Mormons understood such expensive objects to be useful as displays of wealth that defied frontier scarcity, but not as expressions of personhood that established distinction. Identity, for the moment, did not emerge from an assemblage of commodity choices.

What strikes the modern reader of Mormon personal documents written prior to the approach of the railroad is the starkness with which material objects–even expensive articles–were frequently described. In contrast to the rich and deeply layered portrayals of so much in their lives, Mormons found little reason to elaborate when discussing the wares they crafted, traded, purchased, and desired. Women seldom, for example, mentioned the color or print of factory cloth they purchased–often writing simply “factory” or “gingham.” (22) Discussion of goods rarely went beyond the barest possible descriptions: “Got an overcoat, hat, carpet, and pocket handkerchief,” wrote Jesse Smith in his diary in 1860 after a trip to the store. Similarly George Washington Bean wrote, “bought new shirt from store” and “bought bowl from bowl factory” in 1851. And John Bennion spent what was a fortune in Utah in 1852–$40–on a cupboard, yet remarked in his diary only “Brought home a cupboard from Brother Capener.” (23)

Detailed descriptions of goods, however, did occasionally come from more recent arrivals to Utah. While these individuals often brought with them from the East a more fully developed sense of the potential social meanings contained within commodity choice, they had not yet experienced in a sustained fashion the restricted range of merchandise in Utah. Mary Jane Lambson, for example, was not yet a year in the valley when she wrote her sister in 1848:


delain is trimed with fringe, she ware the white josey apron with the

pink one. Has a nice little straw bonnet with a little bourder in the

edge, pink ribbon one little flower and white pantelets with incirtin

(inserts) above the hem as you may ges how sweet she looks. (24)

But Lambson’s comments shortly after arriving were unusual for the time. Extensive description of either goods or one’s choice in goods–as indicated through words like “taste,” “style,” and “choice”–began to appear in the personal writings of Mormons with broad regularity only in the late 1860s. That Mormons had little opportunity before that time to select from a range of goods explains the paucity of such terms and the simplicity with which Mormons detailed goods and their choices.

For Mormons of this period encountered a retail world marked by limited consumer choices, regardless of the carrying capacities of various freighting companies and despite seemingly unquenchable local demand. Whereas customers in the East and Midwest selected goods from store shelves stocked with a wide range of products in accordance with consumer demand, merchants in Utah forced their patrons to accept only those specific goods which were advantageous to the retailer at that particular time. This critical difference stemmed from the embryonic state of commercial linkages between Utah and the States. Merchants in Zion confronted severe impediments of both credit and currency beyond those obstacles posed by transportation with oxen across a thousand miles of sparse country. Without a dependable mail service with which to transmit either an order or money, merchants could neither request goods from wholesalers in the East or pay for them. Accordingly, Utah merchants had to assume the risks and costs of both retail and freighting expenses by journeying East themselves and transporting the goods back to sell–a six-month round trip that could be embarked upon only once a year because of deep snows. If seasonal or fashionable goods were to be purchased, merchants had to absorb the costs long before they could be recouped from sales–tying up scarce capital in the process. Obliged to absorb a wide range of financial jeopardy in both the transporting and selling of goods, Utah merchants reasonably responded by eschewing the risks associated with both new products and variations of the same product, and so stocked only the most basic of items. Whatever the carrying capacity of the wagon trains, the limited commercial channels between Zion and wholesalers in Saint Louis meant that merchants in Utah made available only a small portion of the range of products available elsewhere.

That limited commercial links–rather than local demand or freighting capacities–shaped the composition of Utah’s retail marketplace was all too apparent to many Mormons. The Deseret News, for example, noted in 1854 that “all our stores” stock largely “those goods they could make the most profit on, independent of the wants of the community.” (25) The Utah press expressed particular frustration with the role merchant credit had long played in structuring the Territory’s marketplace. Contemplating the change that the railroad’s arrival might bring, the Daily Telegraph observed, “Our merchants before … purchased heavily–a whole year’s supply for their customers. A few princely houses were alone capable of … the length of credit necessary to cover the time of transportation from the Atlantic to the Missouri, thence across the plains in slow ox trains.” The railroad, however, would expand commercial linkages because “instead of three, four and five months absence from home, and the contingent high expenses, in a few more months our merchants can make a trip to the Missouri, purchase in Omaha and return all within eight days.” With these reduced barriers to entry, the newspaper speculated, there “would come a change.” Retail competition, the paper predicted, would increase–and so too would responsiveness to consumers. (26)

Those who had just arrived from the East often acutely felt the impact of their constrained choices. A few years after participating in the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo, Lydia Lyman expressed this sentiment to her sister back east, while thanking her for goods she had sent: “Mother is very much pleased with her dress as also I with mine, it could not [be] … better if I had the privilege of choosing myself … I have not … half the comfort in this world I wish.” Lydia, in fact, frequently wrote to relatives complain of the lack of comfort and commodity choice in Zion. (27) Mrs. Susan Rheads/Eliza Persis Rhead, writing from the small town of Coalville more than fifteen years later exclaimed–despite the presence of two stores in town–“factory (cloth) is so rare in this country I can not choose what I wear.” Her sentiments were hardly unique. (28)

Outsiders visiting Utah during the early settlement period often commented on what they perceived as the random clothing combinations Mormons assembled from the mixture of the garb that drifted into Zion, the garments that foreign converts brought with them from their native lands, and the apparel Mormons managed to make in Utah. Austin Ward, recording his observations during his visit to Utah in 1855 or 1856 in letters that his mother eventually edited and published after his death, remarked with evident bemusement that:

Brigham Young, the patriarch, attempted to lead the fashion, and set

out with a slouched yellow hat, much too large even for his large

head, green frock coat, and pants large in size and loose in fit,

white socks and slippers. (29)

In much the same vein, a correspondent for the New York Herald, Mrs. Benjamin T. Ferris, observed after a visit to the Salt Lake tabernacle in 1852 that Mormons had in their dress “no prevailing fashion … and a great variety of costume.” Even as late as 1866, William Walters, a young army officer who visited Utah remarked in letters back East that Mormon dress combined “a great a variety of styles, unequaled in that respect by any other people.” (30)

Utah newspapers echoed the laments of individual Mormons regarding the limited choice of commodities, and advertisements frequently listed the remaining goods at stores. With the impending arrival of the railroad, the Daily Telegraph exulted at the coming freedom Mormons would have to purchase “exactly what they want, instead of something they did not want.” (31) Later, the paper would herald the “last winter (of) rude and primitive arrangements,” triumphantly summarizing the hardships suffered by Mormons:

Heretofore, if one could not get a suitable article of any kind,

however much needed, one could do without it, no matter the

inconvenience or the privations. Hereafter, any thing that is in the

Union, that any of our residents need, they will be able to obtain in

the line of business, by sending order and cash and obtain in a week

or two. No more weary and inconvenient waiting for necessary articles,

no more getting along with the most crude makeshifts. (32)

Without an understood variety of available goods, Mormons knew objects could not embody their owner’s preferences, and collections of objects could not represent their owner’s taste. Taste, which in Bourdieu’s famous phrase “classifies the classifier,” could not function socially in a culture that perceived its object choices as painfully atrophied. In a telling expression of the limited social meaning Mormons perceived in commodity choices–whose late date reflects the isolation of Pinto, Utah–the author of a hand-written manuscript newspaper opined, “It does not make any difference what we have got if we know we can’t get any better.” (33)

The Transformation

The railroad’s arrival in May of 1869 dramatically transformed the consumer marketplace in Utah. At the most practical level, the railroad ameliorated some of the consequences of Mormondom’s geographical isolation by lowering shipping costs while raising freighting capacities. But more importantly, rail service encouraged a fuller articulation of commercial linkages between the territory and national distribution networks by erasing obstacles of credit and currency. More direct commercial relations with eastern wholesalers meant that Utah merchants no longer had to shoulder as many of the costs and risks associated with transportation and inventory. This changing economic landscape propelled merchants to alter their retail practices by carrying a larger variety of products and stocking more finished eastern merchandise.

And so, industrially produced and commercially marketed goods became available in an unprecedented range of options; moreover, the objects shopkeepers stacked on their shelves–and that Mormons carted home–reflected consumer demand rather than simply merchant priorities. One index of the proliferation of consumer choice confronting Mormons like Coombs can be found in the sharply increased variety of goods registered in store account books after the railroad’s arrival in contrast to the limited range recorded in the inventory records of freighting companies from before 1869. A single comparison shall suffice here: the inventory records of the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express from 1862 and store inventory records from a small general store in Coalville, Utah from 1872.

Collating from the records the number of variations within a handful of representative categories of goods–different colors of blankets, for example–reveals that in 1862 the company had brought to Utah (among other items) seven types of men’s footwear and six types of women’s, five colors of blankets, and twelve varieties of cloth. In contrast, the small store had on hand in 1872 twelve types of men’s footwear, fifteen of women’s, nine colors of blankets, and twenty varieties of cloth–essentially double the consumer choice to be found in the 1862 freighting records. Moreover, many of the items had come from as far away as New York. In short, the railroad–as these retail records suggest–not only increased consumers’ ability to purchase goods, but also dramatically expanded the range of goods from which they could chose.

The railroad’s impending arrival, however, also inspired an official Church response that would, both in turn and ironically, expand and extend the consumer revolution. Brigham Young and other Church Elders’ ambitious plan in 1868 to construct retail cooperatives in Utah–a full year before the golden spike was driven at Promontory Point–is often cast as episode in the Saints’ long resistance to Gentile domination, and a testament to their commitment to social equality. No doubt, the founders of the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI) aimed to capture the bulk of the retail market for the Saints, buttress Mormon control over their own affairs after the railroad (and more Gentiles) arrived, and equalize income in the region. But as Maureen Beecher and other historians have demonstrated, the movement was more productive of fine rhetoric than economic independence. Nor did the various Church boycotts of Gentile merchants or Brigham Young’s frequent exhortations for less of both expensive dress and dependence on imported luxuries–“retrenchment” in Church parlance–make any sustained impact on the Saints’ consumption patterns. (34)

It is tempting, accordingly, to dismiss the various Mormon efforts as ineffectual. The ZCMI, however, did do much to expand retail choice in Utah. Considering the ZCMI alongside similar mercantile cooperatives elsewhere at the same time highlights the essential function of the early institution in creating a retail marketplace responsive to consumer demand. (35) As the historian David Blanke reminds us, a variety of purchasing collectives flourished in the Midwest between 1865 and 1875, seeking–through cooperative action–to leverage the power of consumers to shape the composition of available goods. The ZCMI functioned in a similar fashion, dramatically expanding commodity choice by collectively shouldering many of the costs of inventory and transportation that had long plagued individual merchants in Zion. As a result, the local ZCMI stores were able to carry goods to which many Mormons in smaller towns had never before had access. Residents of such settlements interviewed by members of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers in the 1930s and 40s frequently described the establishment of the local ZCMI store as transforming the material life of their towns. For example, Mrs. Phebe Boggs Prince (b. 1855 m. 1873 d. 1945), recalled that before ZCMI, the residents of her town of Washington, Utah “had a hard time getting things” from freighters, but “after that came the co-op store, where they could get almost anything they wanted.” (36)

Likewise, many saw the ZCMI as a means to bring to smaller towns the goods that residents wanted, rather than those that would make merchants the most profit. For instance George A. Smith (b. 1817 p. 1848 d. 1875) urged his brethren in Parowan to establish ZCMI stores in southern Utah because–as he explained it–“much of the goods” independent merchants carried “were not well chosen for (their) needs.” (37) Moreover, because the cooperative structure made feasible the opening of stores in even remote towns, the ZCMI often brought a much-appreciated retail presence to towns that had gone without. “There was a lot of talk about the Church, or rather, the ZCMI locating a store in our town,” Maren Kirstina Anderson Nielson (b. 1843 p. 1863) wrote in her autobiography about the coming of the ZCMI to her small settlement in Sanpete County, Utah. “This was surely the best news we had heard for a long time. The next summer the store became a reality, and what a celebration our town had.” (38)

As stores in Zion offered an ever greater variety of imported merchandise, Mormons increasingly reached for them, forgoing domestically produced wares with their meanings bound to particular locales. Furniture provides a persuasive example of Mormon’s dwindling interest in local products after 1870. Anders Swensen, for example, found his traditional furniture a tough sell even in his rural, largely Scandinavian town in Sanpete County. Writing to his family in Norway in 1877, he announced:

It is our intention to buy more land, because our children are growing

up and they are going to help us work our place, and carpenter work is

not so good in our city as had been. Furniture is imported from the

East and California, and windows and doors together with moldings for

homes are all brought in here, so it looks like I have to rely most on

remaining a farmer, tilling the earth. (39)

Swensen was not alone. The census from Utah lists an increasing number of cabinetmakers until 1870, when their numbers decline. (40) More surprisingly, such desires prevailed even where Mormon efforts to resist eastern goods were most concentrated and organized.

Brigham City–the earliest and most comprehensive manifestation of the Saints’ efforts to resist eastern economic domination through community cooperation–established its cabinet shop in 1874 as a direct consequence of the increasing availability of imported furniture. In her careful study of the shop, Kari Michele Main concluded that the “account books reflect an increasing taste for eastern fashions. Eventually … the Cabinet Making shop resorted to selling more imported products than ‘homemade’ items.” Revealingly, while in 1874 labor generated three-quarters of the co-op’s income, by 1888 that number had slipped to one percent as the store became essentially a purveyor of eastern goods. (41)

And while these changes in Zion’s marketplaces might seem merely a picturesque footnote within the vanished world of the western frontier, in many ways they may be more accurately understood as a particularly delayed and truncated example of a larger, national development: the creation over the course of the nineteenth century of a retail distribution system that although capable of responding to consumer demand also elbowed aside the earlier and highly localized networks of rural manufacturing and marketing. Indeed, the changes in Utah’s mercantilism represents a dramatic and compressed echo of the growth in the retail infrastructure that had occurred in the rural Midwest ten years earlier and in the rural North fifteen before that. (42)

As a number of historical studies have revealed, decentralized commercial systems flourished in various regions until a combination of more articulated distribution networks and larger producers displaced them. Barry Kessler, for example, found an increasing number of farmers becoming smalltime cabinet-makers in Chester County, Pennsylvania in the early nineteenth century until they gave way to producers in Philadelphia several decades later. Likewise, David Jaffe–focussing on shelf clocks and other consumer goods–has illuminated the ways in which rural artisans and their itinerant peddler partners fashioned a commercial system in the rural North during first half of the nineteenth century that depended upon craft production diffused through country side. Within a quarter century, however, as manufacturers consolidating in urban areas provided a larger number and greater choice of standardized goods, the grassroots character of the marketplace dissipated; local artisans, in particular, lost their determining role in fashioning commodities. (43)

But while such economic transformations, and their attendant cultural shifts, were dispersed across time and space in ways that vex historians’ efforts to chronicle them, in Zion these changes were funneled–in an elucidating manner–geographically and chronologically into a community eager to register its historical experience. The Mormon experience demonstrates with particular clarity the role that expanding commodity variation coupled with the diffusion of popular literature had in elevating consumer choice as the most visible means of self-definition.

Mormons explicitly experienced the expansion in their commodity choices not merely as the lifting of frontier deprivation, but also as the opportunity to participate in what they now saw as the civilizing forces of culture. The Daily Telegraph, for example, celebrated the expected reconnection with the eastern world of the goods by exclaiming, “The rails will promptly bring us anything we really want … our citizens will find themselves on par with their fellow citizens in the states.” (44)

As the editors contemplated the meaning of the railroad’s arrival, the anticipated social change they heralded focused not on the fact that lower prices for items might allow Mormons to accumulate more worldly goods but rather that a greater range of commodities would permit them to express more aesthetic preferences. Such a prospect, the editors assumed, would inevitably elevate culture in Utah. The editors reveled in the novel “variety” of goods suddenly for sale in the territory, and crowed that the “beauty of design” to be found in the new array of goods would lead to a “higher plane of civilization” to the territory. (45)

The novel theme of social restoration through commodity choice in the Daily Telegraph echoes in Mormon personal documents as well. Harriet Bradley, for example, wrote to her brother that she anxiously awaited the arrival of the railroad, because the increased exchange of goods would “set us upon a level with the rest of the world.” Local histories written at the time also stressed the ways in which the railroad reconnected their community to “the commercial world,” and “changed everything” by making possible “civilization.” (46)

That Mormons began to see both civilization and culture in their new commodity choices reveals a critical transformation in how Mormons conceived of goods. If, as anthropologists suggest, culture is a system for the creation of meaning, then the multiplication of consumer choices was, in many ways, a cultural encounter for Mormons. Each marginal distinction between goods in the expanding variety of commodities invited Mormons to see meaning in such differences and to find significance in the comparison of goods. To participate in a system of meaning made possible by commodity differentiation, Mormons now had to possess not only objects, but also the social knowledge of their ascribed significance. As such commodity meanings became widely circulated among the Mormons, many came to see possessions as the embodiment of their owners’ ability to discern such meanings precisely. And so Mormons found themselves immersed in an expanding code for creating meaning–a system of objects whereby new commodity variation invited the creation of novel cultural significance, which in turn found expression in new goods. And as such products moved through the society, they solicited yet more participation in the already established conceptions of commodity meaning.

Before the proliferation of imported merchandise, Mormons rarely chose to apply adjectives to goods. But, as expanding commodity variation whispered that social meaning could be found in the contrasts between items, the terms of differentiation between objects acquired more value for Mormons. Accordingly, what Clifford Geertz might call the “thickness” of the Saints’ description of commodities grew. They lovingly filled their diaries and letters with rich descriptions of the new consumer abundance, making distinction after distinction among types of goods as they categorized them with increasing precision. In doing so, they both responded to and expanded a cultural system that generated meaning from commodity differentiation. (47)

Isaiah Coombs’s diary, in which he wrote nearly daily from the time he emigrated to Utah until his death thirty years later, underscores the revealing expansion in descriptive terms. In three decades of writing, Coombs’s discussions regarding goods rarely employed modifiers until 1880 when he began to use strings of adjectives to discuss his new acquisitions: “bought a new, double silver hunter watch … cost $32.00 It is an Elgin.” Indeed, seldom after 1880 did Coombs buy a new object without recording a litany of distinguishing marks and price: “Bought a new Cooking Stove…. The Maud 8–full extension price $50.00.” “Bought a Garden Combine Cultivator.” “Bought a new Patent washing machine … ‘The Little Joker’.” “Bought a Champion Monitor #28 (stove), for which I gave $70.80.” (48)

Jens Weibye, once as sparing as Coombs in his portrayals of goods in the 1860s and mid-1870s, increasingly took to longer descriptions after 1878, once describing a Bible as “illustrated … french Morocco (leather), London antique, raised panels, superfine edition.” (49) John Powell, too, rarely found it necessary to depict objects at length in his diary during the 1860s and 1870s, but did so increasingly after 1880–describing, for example, a gift he received as “a beautiful silk china handkerchief.” Mormons who had rarely added descriptive language to their discussions of goods now did so with enthusiasm, writing: “a beautiful bronze stand and globe containing a pair of gold fish and pare of elegant vases. Beautiful,” “a very nice, rich, and large, cardinal silk pocket handkerchief,” and “a beautiful Morocco bound case lined inside with rose colored satin, while the cover contains a plate glass mirror … Altogether … most elegant.” Mormons’ growing obsession with commodity classification testifies to their increasing participation in what was for them a meaningful system of objects. (50)

As the relationships among commodities jelled into a system, Mormons increasingly insisted that goods they selected could and should function together to form a single, cohesive aesthetic. In contrast to Mormons’ earlier understanding of objects as discrete entities, beginning in the 1870s they frequently organized their perception of goods as a collective of objects which could “go with” each other or which had to be “arranged” or “fixed up.” Hyrum Clawson, for example, described in 1884 that his wife “bought curtains like those in the spare bedroom to go with those in the dining room,” later noting how she “had the furniture in the bedroom changed around” to fit her new decoration. A letter writer in 1878 wrote to Mrs. Caroline Callister that a friend had “her house pretty well arranged except the windows (in) one room.”

Likewise, Jens Weibye noted how after arranging his various purchases with his wives by “(hanging) up pictures … and curtains” and laying down “carpeting … as well as a grate,” his bedroom was “considered ready … and finished.” Weibye’s sense of completion, however, was illusory, for over the next decade he and his wives would continue to purchase new bedsteads, paintings, window blinds, and carpeting, whose introduction caused them to re-organize their possessions on several more occasions to maintain what he described as the “arrangement” of their home.

Just after the turn of the century, Nellie Taylor wrote her father from Provo of her new home: “we are now in our neat little house, but of course not thoroughly settled yet as it takes so long to get everything in a place where it would look its best.” Here, objects worked “best” when they performed their proper role within a larger system: the hypothetical and anonymous gaze of the “look.” Nellie’s mother, Elmina, too, was aware of the importance of the arrangement of goods. She took great pride in the local newspaper’s descriptions of her parties, saving each article in her scrapbook. The language in the clippings warrants attention for what it reveals regarding the growing value Mormons placed upon a cohesive aesthetic–“The rooms were handsomely fitted up and the decoration of … flowers daintily arranged, all made a picture charming to remember.” Elmina cherished the public reception of her manipulation of consumer goods, for which, the article argued, she should be lauded. (51)

Similarly, the Davis family saved in their scrapbook a description from a local paper of a party held at their house in the early 1880s. The journalist’s praise for their home centered on the manner in which the “bric-a-brac” and other furnishings had been “admirable arranged” to create a “scene” that was “luxurious.” Here, the value of possessions lay less in the goods themselves–which went largely unmentioned–and more in the extent to which their organization around an aesthetic whole announced the social knowledge of the owners. The article’s author assumed the meaning of goods was to be found within patterns of preferences: the selection of possessions from an array of choices and the display of such items within an arrangement of objects. Once rare, such an assumption became common in Utah during the 1870s. (52)

Understanding commodities not as discrete objects, but rather as elements of a cultural system held together by relationships as words are held together in a sentence by grammar, was a novel phenomenon in Zion. Little in the diaries or letters of Mormons suggests that they regularly perceived goods in this manner prior to the expansion in commodity differentiation. Now, the meaning of goods–once found in individual objects–emerged instead from a total ensemble, the overall system of goods. Locally produced objects whose meanings could not be folded readily into the recently arrived symbolic code lost their individual value as they got displaced by the new design totality.

The new emphasis upon selection and organization underscored the novel value Mormondom placed on the relationship between individuals and commodities. The Saints began to perceive that while manufactured products might not be unique, one could assert a unique relationship to those items through selection–a relationship that could posses social meaning. Such a vision of commodities changed, in turn, how Mormons understood their own selection of them.

As the selection of commodities from the East expanded, Mormons increasingly infused their choice of goods with social significance. Although earlier Mormons used the phrases “market” or “buy” to describe their acquisition of goods from stores, increasingly in the 1870s they used new terms such as “select” or “choose” along with the old. Mary Amelia Burton, for example, recorded with care the days in 1893 she and her fiance went “up town” to “select” carpets, blinds, a parlor mantel, and wedding gifts for a friend. In a letter of 1875 to Eliza Rhead, a friend from Salt Lake said she had passed the day “choosing fancy goods.” (53) This transformation underscores the novel understanding Mormons applied to choice. One’s consumer choices now embodied one’s skill in the new social system of meaning made both possible and necessary by expansion of commodity variation.

As Mormons increasingly associated the selection of goods with individual identities, choices within the expanded array of available commodities received more social attention. The shift in descriptive terms Isaiah Coombs used to assess possessions sheds light on this transformation. Although Coombs often deemed some goods more valuable than others, in 1872 he began to make such judgments by employing the notion of “style.” Coombs first used the term while visiting the local bishop–“Am staying with the Bishop tonight. He has a very fine house–everything in style.” The bishop’s house continued to fascinate Coombs; seven months later he wrote again; “At Bishop Wolley’s. He has built him a large house and furnished it in style.” By 1880, Coombs began to apply the term “tasteful” for the first time, finding it useful to evaluate everything from caskets to clothing. (54)

Jens Christian Anderson Weibye wrote regularly in his diary between 1862 and 1893, yet never found occasion to assess the material world with words like “taste” until 1890, when he began to apply the concept to buildings and interiors, which he described as “tastefully decorated.” Although the diaries of Coombs and Weibye are unusual in both the depth of detail they employ and the span of time they cover, similar patterns appear even in more fragmentary collections. “Style” and “taste” become common terms of critical evaluation in Mormon personal documents only after the 1870s, highlighting the role of the variation of goods in the creation of a new understanding of objects. (55)

But even as Mormons assigned greater meaning to their expanding consumer choices, the sources for those meanings became both less local and less participatory. Adrift in a sea of imported commodities whose ascribed meanings were unknowable in local terms, Mormons increasingly faced consumer decisions that their immediate experiences no longer readily addressed. The Saints found themselves in need of an interpretative map that looked beyond the familiar compass of a particular locale’s social dynamics–something comprehending the expressive potential of local craft production had seldom required. Sentimental fiction and the national popular press served this purpose nicely, but their far-flung points of reference eroded the power of the Saints’ immediate experience to shape the meaning of goods.

As the material culture historian Catherine Grier argues in her nuanced study of the role of the parlor in America, by the 1830s Victorian culture worked, in part, through “the commercialization of objects that served as vehicles for symbolic meanings”–meanings that were often derived from popular literature. Grier details the ways in which such literature provided Americans with a sensibility or “semantic taxonomy” to understand the world. This Victorian vision linked the progress of civilization with the values of “delicacy” and “refinement,” while understanding “ornamentation” and “decoration” as their aesthetic manifestations–whether in poetry or household furnishings. Accordingly, one might assert an allegiance to the cultural principles celebrated in sentimental literature by demonstrating attention to and appreciation of detail. Such attention, in turn, might be rendered visible by choosing consumer goods marked by intricate ornament. (56)

Although Mormons received through the mail much of the popular literature Grier points to–Godey’s Lady’s Book, for example–as early as 1855, it was not until the late 1860s and early 1870s that they began to make general use of the semantic taxonomy she describes. (57) The lag is revealing. Judging from their personal documents, Mormons found little reason to participate in a sensibility that remained silent about the local meanings of the regionally produced wares that were available to them while speaking fully only to eastern merchandise that frequently was not. Accordingly, Victorian culture’s fusing of particular social and aesthetic tenets made limited headway in Zion, whose geographic isolation filtered out the commodity manifestations of that sensibility and left only a shell of words to proselytize for the complex system of meaning.

But the Victorian aesthetic lens took on a renewed value for Mormons after the proliferation of goods with non-local meanings with railroad’s approach and arrival. Victorianism–whose aesthetic sensibility transformed the new commodities into meaningful symbols–offered a useful means to both understand and make those consumer decisions. And so it is only after the late 1860s that Mormons began to describe the material world in their diaries, letters, and news-papers by employing terms central to this Victorian sensibility.

For example, although John Bennion kept a diary regularly after 1855, he never found occasion to use words akin to “ornament” or “decoration” while describing the material world until 1871, when he wrote “attended a party of the Female R(elief) Society. The house ornamented.” Likewise, Isaiah Coombs wrote nearly daily after arriving in Utah in 1856, but it was not until 1875 that he made use of Grier’s “semantic taxonomy,” noting “adorn(ed) and beautified homes” in a letter to his wife Fanny. In time, Isaiah would praise a meeting house for being “adorned” and forming “a beautiful scene.” Similarly, Jens Weibye first employed such language in 1876 in the diary he had been keeping for fourteen years, remarking “I and family attended a Christmas dance, it was very nice (sic) decorated.” Later he approved of “a nicely ornamented coffin.” In like manner, the minutes of the Riverside Stake Relief Society reveal no use of the sentimental vocabulary Grier describes from 1855 until 1880, when “Sister Jones said she was in favor of … decorat[ing]” the Relief Hall. (58) Similarly, The Deseret News first gave voice to Mormons’ new participation in the Victorian sensibility of refinement in 1869 when it proclaimed:

education is the adornment and polish rather than the foundation of

the superstructure of society … The foundation of our society has

been laid, and laid securely … (Now) the work of ornamentation,

adornment and more perfect development becomes a matter of judicious

attention. (59)

The Deseret News’s summons for greater “ornamentation” and “adornment” was echoed in the Relief Society President’s call–as recorded in the Society’s minutes–in 1889 “for a school for teaching little girls sewing, embroidery, crochet, knitting, hair flowers, and any thing else that may be … ornamental.” (60)

Indeed, by the 1880s members of the Relief society often spoke of their particular mission to adorn Zion. In 1886, the sisters of the Relief Society of Manti, Utah’s South Ward, considered both decorations of and donations to the Kingdom of God as equally compelling duties, urging each other “to be more prompt in paying our tithing … and mak(ing) nice ornaments for the temple.” Far from trivial, such decorations could serve higher purposes–or so thought the sisters of the Relief Society of South Ephraim in 1894. Infusing finishings with the ability to inspire group piety, they donated their “Sunday eggs” so they might purchase window blinds and draperies for the local meeting house in order that “all would have greater reverence” in it. (61)

The Relief Society’s faith that highly ornamental domestic artifacts might invoke piety closely parallels a prevailing theme in the sentimental literature of the time. As the literary scholar Lori Merish has noted, an ethic of “pious consumption”–promoted in a variety of literary and theological discourses–had achieved wide currency by mid-century. This secularized Protestant ideal reached its apotheosis in Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s best selling novel Gates Ajar (1868) that depicted the afterworld as a consumer paradise marked by private homes decorated with elegant objects “nicer” than those “in the shops in Boston.” Phelps’ vision found an echo in at least one Saint’s unconscious dreams. Writing sometime after Brigham Young’s death in 1877 to a friend in Salt Lake, a resident of St. George described having recurring dreams of a house in which “Bro. Brigham and Sister Mary Ann (?) (are) both elegantly dressed and looking so beautiful and every thing about the house is … of an elegant style. I am always happy in such dreams.” One need not resort to asserting a direct influence of Phelps upon this letter writer to observe the remarkable convergence of theme and language in their visions; Mormons increasingly embraced an understanding of both consumption and commodities that closely mirrored that expressed in nationally distributed popular literature. (62)

Mormons clearly felt the draw of this national sensibility that animated the influx of eastern goods with rich constellations of cultural associations. They eagerly turned to literature printed in the East to acquire fluency in the expressive, if nonverbal, rhetoric made possible by this new sensibility. Luke W. Gallup (b. 1822 p. 1850 d. 1891), for example, while visiting “Sister Bridges” at her house in 1872 found either one of the many chapters in Victorian domestic manuals devoted to explicating the “Language of Flowers” (a term used at the time) or perhaps one of several popular books by that title. Struck by the communicative potential contained in the work, he carefully wrote down the symbols he had read. Gallup was not alone in his interest. That same year Harriet Jones Morris (b. 1848 p. 1848 d. 1917) of Salt Lake purchased a copy of The Language of Flowers, and treasured it sufficiently to pass it on to her grandchildren. (63) Victorianism offered Mormons new symbolic possibilities, and they were eager to learn its codes.

The role of the popular press in providing the Saints with a Victorian accented consumerist Esperanto capable of giving the new imported objects social meaning is particularly visible in the practice of women’s scrapbooks. (64) In making scrapbooks, Mormon women selected, edited, and assembled fragments of the commercial press and their surroundings to create meaningful narratives of their cultural milieu. Accordingly, scrapbooks provide a window into the changing symbols around which their creators chose to weave this narrative–scrapbooks are literally documents of what Mormon women made of the popular press.

As the scrapbooks reveal, Mormons not only made sense of objects through the sensibility provided by the popular press, but also made visible their participation in that sensibility through commodities. Caroline Smith Callister’s inclusion in her scrapbook from the 1880s of an article describing proper table etiquette provides one example of how Mormons increasingly participated in the national consumer consciousness by employing the popular press. “It was Emerson,” began the article from an unknown eastern paper that attracted both Caroline’s attention and her scissors, “who said he should prefer to sit at a table with a perfectly mannered scoundrel than take his meals with the honestest (sic) man in the world who ate with knife made gurgling noises in taking his soup.” The author continued with dictates requiring specialized plates for each dish, distinct spoons for soup and dessert, and the careful use of napkins. Knowledge of specialized table utensils and social acceptability are fused by the article–a blending of meanings important enough to Caroline that she both removed the text from the magazine and glued it in the center of her scrapbook page.

It was no idle joining of ideas and artifacts in the article, nor was it a trivial matter for Caroline to include the excerpt in her scrapbook. The linkage between the specialization of domestic objects and social refinement was one of the critical ways in which middle-class Victorian culture distinguished itself. As the historian Kenneth Ames observes, for Victorians “specialization was as much an attribute of highly developed organisms as it was of highly developed societies … The concepts of specialization and refinement were inseparable.” (65) Commodities, in Caroline’s excerpt, specified divisions in “what’s out there in the world” and so became symbols for thinking: use of the fork (and not the knife) to eat solid food and the use of specialized spoons for soup and desert divided the social world into who was acceptable to associate with, and who was not–regardless of other social criteria such as honesty. Caroline’s scrapbook captures the increasingly prominent part played by the national press in Mormon’s understanding of the role of goods in their lives.

But Caroline made additional associations in her scrapbook. While the article on table utensils occupies the center of the page, she filled the borders of the scrapbook leaf with articles from various newspapers testifying to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. For good measure, she included a poem that described that work as “The Golden Bible.” In so doing, she literally connected discourses on Victorian manners and Mormon theology. Such linkages in Caroline’s scrapbook suggest her complicated negotiation of two communities that must have existed in uneasy tension: one local, and grounded in the face-to-face interaction of her experience as the first wife of a polygamous union in Fillmore, Utah; and the other the national consumer culture stressing a Victorian vision of respectable domesticity with its accompanying celebration of monogamy. If such a negotiation might appear odd to contemporary observers, it seems not to have been unusual. Hannah Caroline Rogers Daniels, also eventually sealed in a polygamous union, chose as well to include in her scrapbook instructions on the proper setting of a table, detailing the appropriate location for a host of specialized dishes. Other commodities, too, played a role in “flagging” Victorianism in her scrapbook.

Hannah chose a potent symbol of that culture when she carefully cut out images of parlor organs displayed by the George Woods Co. at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition from a magazine article of the event and glued them into her scrapbook. For Victorian culture, parlor organs–as Kenneth Ames argues–“expressed affiliation beyond the limits of family and friends” because the “rich associations of the parlor organ … made it valued evidence of contact and affiliation with the larger world.” The power of parlor organs, Ames demonstrates, stemmed from their ability to suggest piety while demarcating female space through their role as the site of feminine accomplishment. No single object, accordingly, from the vast array of objects which Mormons became increasingly familiar with in the 1870s could fuse pious consumption, cosmopolitanism, and respectable womanhood quite so well in Zion as the parlor organ. Hannah did not visit the 1876 Exhibition, nor does the $500 of personal wealth listed in the 1870 census for her farm household of twelve suggest that she actually owned a parlor piano at the time. Yet her decision to preserve depictions of parlor organs underscores both the power and meaningfulness her participation in the Victorian sensibility held for her, as well as the defining role commodities played in her understanding of that sensibility. Likewise, Edith Ann Smith (b. 1861 d. 1954) filled portions of her scrapbook from the 1890s with images of toilet cushions. So critical, in fact, were commodities in invoking the consumption community of Victorianism in these scrapbooks that Caroline Callister literally inserted commodities into her scrapbook by gluing swatches of factory fabric into her folio. (66) Comprehending the new world of goods around them through the lens of Victorian culture, Mormons adopted the descriptive vocabulary supplied to them by popular press. For Zion this transatlantic language of bourgeoisie Victorianism was a remarkably novel way of making sense of commodities.

As Grier emphasizes, popular literature–notably fiction, poetry, and advice books–ensured the widespread circulation of a cohesive set of cultural meanings that Americans bestowed upon many industrially produced goods. In contrast, neither the creation nor distribution of such symbolic associations were common aspects of American manufacturers’ attempts to spur sales until at least the mid-1890s. As the historian Pamela Laird points out in her recent survey of late nineteenth-century marketing techniques, the advertisements of this period were typically producer focussed; they celebrated the interests and tastes of company owners, not the aspirations and insecurities of their intended audience. (67) Accordingly, while these advertisements often included amusing pro-sales arguments in their pitches, they rarely attempted to infuse their products with social meaning or what might now be called brand image for the potential consumer. Consequently, the national sensibility Mormons turned to in order to understand the influx of eastern goods, was made salient to them more by the sentimental themes of popular literature than by the promotional efforts of industrial manufacturers. Indeed, Church leaders had long condemned the reading of “corrupting pages of yellow covered fiction flood(ing) the land” for encouraging women to engage in “a thousand fashionable fooleries.” (68)

The manner in which this widespread Victorian sensibility allowed Mormons to establish rich connections between commercial products and personal character is captured succinctly in the comments of one woman–“S.”–in a letter to Elmina Taylor in 1896. Writing to thank Mrs. Taylor for the gift of a watch, “S.” exclaimed of the gift:

so chaste … so pretty and the one thing I have really wanted for

years but knew it would be years still before I could hope to possess

one. But it has come. I have never wanted diamonds or jewels, they

represent too much wasted power and money, but … a watch … I

could not find it in my heart to refuse it … It seemed so lovely

and altogether so desirable a thing that I could only clasp my hands

and say over and over in my heart, oh thank God. (69)

Despite the length of her commentary, “S” never addresses the time-keeping qualities of the watch. Rather, she found the gift “desirable” precisely because through it she could display her appreciation of the social value (“so chaste”) Victorian culture ascribed to the watch. She contrasted the display of that virtue with the parading of “power and money” that “diamonds and jewels” represented. Using possessions to announce influence and wealth struck “S.” as uncouth; in contrast, using commodity choice to telegraph personal traits–here, the social knowledge required to discern which timepieces suggested chastity–appealed to her. Mormons like “S.” had come to perceive goods not merely as gauges of their owners’ financial standing, but also as windows into their store of social knowledge.

Commercially produced objects, in effect, became certificates of expertise in a novel system of social information. As a consequence, the private self could not escape public scrutiny, for all objects potentially became tangible evidence of one’s supply of social knowledge. The explosion of variety in goods, then, enlarged the interpretable connection between the private self and public display. Although the Mormons self-consciously attempted to resist the consequences of commercialization the railroad brought, they could not escape the notion that goods now revealed the character of their owners.

But if goods could now reflect inner character, so too–Mormons realized–could they be used to project a counterfeit persona. The long-standing tension between authenticity and artifice in Mormondom, once largely a matter of deceitful words, coalesced in a new fashion around possessions. Two diary entries by Luke William Gallup bear the imprint of this transformation In 1853, Gallup returned to his home in Springville after a sermon by the Bishop in the local meeting house. Struck by the ministering that day, he confided in his diary that the Bishop had demonstrated to his brethren that they might identify those of false character in the valley through “their words, though they may often try to deceive and hide their faults with a semblance of truth, we have learned by experience that with all the spirits and power to discern the true spirit and character of others.” Speech, for Gallup and the Bishop, was both the tool by which the godless attempted to mislead and the means with which the righteous might ferret them out. (70)

Nearly twenty years later, Gallup returned in his diary to the theme of artifice. Now Gallup understood that the godless sought to conceal their character “through fashion,” and that “unless parents exercised far more vigilance than circumstances have required in the past to keep their children in the ways of virtue, purity, and holiness, many of them, through inexperience and innocence, were sure to be led into sin” by those who “make every effort to introduce every fashion, folly, custom and vice of the world.” Gallup’s sentiment was echoed many times in Mormondom through the 1870s. The women of the Relief Society of Grantsville, for example, recorded in their minutes “how often did we see young girls that were led away by some finely dressed gentile and induced to marry them.” That Mormons now perceived that clothing, not speech, was the contrivance by which the faithless deceived reveals a significant shift in Mormon’s assumptions about identity. One’s character was now presumed to be most readily evaluated–or shrouded–through possessions. (71)

By itself, this transfiguring of the cultural reference points by which Mormons discerned the character of others is not surprising. The cultural historian Karen Hulttunen has demonstrated that by the 1860s the middle class in the East had ceased to scrutinize strangers for a “transparent sincerity” manifested in a plain-speaking earnestness and instead had begun to appraise others by a complex system of codified rules for genteel behavior and fashionable attire. (72) The Mormon experience, however, demonstrates with unusual clarity the central role of commodity variation in this transition. The rapid expansion of consumer choice in Zion propelled Mormons to reorganize notions of identity and artifice around a system of meaning made coherent by clusters of consumer preferences.

This heightened, yet ambivalent, sensitivity to the new social power of commodities is perhaps best seen in the private deliberations of the Young Ladies Cooperative Retrenchment Association, organized in 1870 to combat the rise “of sinful ambition and vanity in dress among the Daughters of Zion” triggered by the railroad. The members concurred that though they “disapprobated extravagance and waste,” they also recognized “vanity has its charms.” So they recommended that “each one to choose the style best adapted to her own taste and person.” Taste and style, terms rarely used by Mormons a decade earlier, now occupied a position so prominent in the culture that they elided easily with “person.” Being modest in dress, then, was not the same thing as being modest in one’s display of commodity preferences. What is remarkable here is not that Young Ladies contentedly found social meaning in purchased products, but that they fused individual commodity choices with individuality itself. (73)

Many, however, were less than sanguine about the changes ushered in by the railroad. The explosion in commodity choice–coupled with the increased local interest in a far-flung sensibility that promised to decipher the symbolic code of imported goods–could seem like a foreign invasion to Mormon communities. Isaiah Coombs, for example, remained ambivalent about the new cultural order, even as he participated in it. Noting the presence of “two dry goods stores, [and] two millenary establishments” in his town of Payson in 1873, Coombs spoke for many when he concluded, “Civilization is rapidly creeping in upon us. Fashion and Whiskey … [F]alse religions are what the world worships and they are introducing their gods among us … Doubtless many will be caught in the glittering net.” (74)

The “glittering net” that Coombs divined would ensnare his brethren, however, was not woven from advertisements–thought to be the unravelers of authentic cultures by theorists steeped in the social critique of the Frankfurt School and historians stalking the “Captains of Consciousness.” Advertisements that aimed to exploit social anxieties in consumers or ascribe social meanings to products were still several decades or more off. More relevantly to recent scholarship, however, the transformation of consumer thought in Utah does complicate without explicitly contradicting accounts of consumption that stress emulation of social betters as consumption’s driving force. Richard Bushman’s influential work, The Refinement of America, describes, for example, a culture of gentility–with roots stretching back to Renaissance courts–that was able to extend its logic throughout the middling orders of nineteenth century America by riding the expanding industrial economy. Mimicry of elites, for Bushman, best explains the motivations of consumer culture’s new participants during these years. (75) No doubt, aping and envy played their roles when the Saints went shopping. But as the Mormons’ rich collection of personal writings make evident, the changes in Zion’s consumer thought after the railroad are far more complex and thorough-going than simply more and better ways to keep up with the Smiths.

Mormons of this period dramatically transfigured their understandings of both selfhood and goods. The Saints began consistently to yoke consumer choice to personal identity only when changes in the composition of the retail marketplace brought about by the railroad allowed them to forge conceptual links between the unprecedented material and cultural offerings of mid-nineteenth century America: material in the form of multiplying commodity options and cultural in the form of cheaper popular literature dispersed widely though an improved postal system. Although Mormons had access to such writings long before the railroad’s arrival, they had little reason to participate in the aesthetic sensibility promulgated therein until confronted with wares whose meanings required cultural knowledge beyond their local experience. Expanding commodity variation invited Mormons to find meaning in the differences between such goods; widely diffused popular literature suggested the symbolic content for those differences. This transformation, however, inescapably abraded Mormon communities’ earlier influence on the symbolic content of material objects.

Understood in this way, the Mormon experience suggests that the rise of a culture that perceives commodity selection and the creation of the self as simultaneous acts should properly be seen as an integral aspect of the nineteenth century expansion of the market economy. For it was the market economy–and the social changes it engendered–that encouraged Americans to hoist consumer choice, rephrasing Emerson’s familiar complaint, into the saddle of personal identity.


When available, I have provided the date of birth, death, and emigration to Utah for individuals mentioned in the text in parenthesis following the respective name. “b.” indicates date of birth, “d.” indicates date of death, while “p.” indicates date of emigration to Utah. These abbreviations follow the practices of the International Society of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers in referring to emigration before the completion of transcontinental railroad (May 10th, 1869) as “pioneering” to Utah. When an individual was born it Utah, I have omitted the “p.” reference.

In referring to the manuscripts, publications, and archives described in the footnotes of the text as well as in the bibliography the following abbreviations or symbols are used:

BCDB Brigham City Mercantile and Manufacturing Associations Records,

Archive Collection of the Church of Latter-day Saints Church


DUP-C International Society of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers

Museum, Coalville, Utah

DUP-O International Society of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers

Museum, Ogden, Utah

DUP-P International Society of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers

Museum, Para won

DUP-S International Society of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers

Museum, Salt Lake City, Utah

LDS Archive Collection of the Church of Latter-day Saints Church


SHS Library and Archives of the Utah State Historical Society, Salt

Lake City, Utah


Sons, 1851-86)

JH Journal History of the Church of Latter-day Saints, Church

Historians Office, Salt Lake City, Utah

1. For arguments that consumer culture exploits women, see Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 10th anniversary ed (New York, 1974), 206-207; Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York, 1977), chapters 3,4; and Mary Ryan, Womanhood in America, From Colonial Times to the Present (New York, 1975). For more recent examples see Joan Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (New York, 1997), chapter 4; for a review of literature with the opposite take, see Celia Lury, Consumer Culture (New Brunswick, 1996), chapter 5. A more explicit contradiction of Betty Friedan’s “Sexual Sell” arguments can be found in Kathy Peiss, Hope in A Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture (New York, 1998), 4-5. For a general argument that consumerism erodes authentic culture, see Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (London, 1978) as well as Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders (Harmondsworth, 1977). More recent examinations of the destruction of “organic” communities in the face of a consumerist juggernaut include Mark Gottdiener, The Theming of America: Dreams, Vision, and Commercial Space (Boulder, Co, 1997) and Robert Lane, “Friendship or Commodities? The Road Not Taken” Critical Review 8 (1994): 521-554. For countervailing arguments that consumerism might help define communities, see Dick Hebdige, The Meaning of Style (London, 1979). For a variety of discussions of consumerism and the state see Part One of Susan Strasser, Charles McGovern, and Mathias Judt, ed. Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century (Washington, D.C., 1998). Suspicions that consumption and the authentic self exist in tension have a seasoned tradition within Protestant and republican thought with their shared historical hostility toward theatrical artifice and effete display. For discussions of these early critiques, see Michael Barton, “The Victorian Jeremiad, Critics of Accumulation and Display,” in Consuming Visions: Accumulation and Display of Goods in America, 1880-1920, ed. Simon J. Bronner (New York, 1989), 55-73; Jean-Cristophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750 (New York, 1986) and Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington, 1986), 44-62. This tradition gets endlessly recycled in later critiques. From the 1960s, descriptions of the inauthentic self in a consumer culture include David Reisman, The Lonely Crowd: A Study in the Changing American Character (New Haven, 1950), which became widely available in paperback a decade later; from the 1970s, see Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism. For very recent versions of the same–which enthusiastically contradict Hebdige–see Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland, ed., Commodity Your Dissent: Salvos from the Baffler (New York, 1997).

2. Jean-Cristophe Agnew, “Coming Up For Air: Consumer Culture in Historical Perspective,” in Consumption and the World of Goods, ed. John Brewer and Roy Porter (London, 1993). As Agnew acknowledges, the desire to move beyond supply-side formulations has not produced empirically based work that matched historians’ new theoretical aspirations. Attempts to escape the “hypodermic needle” theories of consumer culture include William Leach’s Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York, 1993) and Roland Marchand’s Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940 (Berkeley, 1985). Richard Fox and T.J. Lears’s edited work The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1890 (New York, 1983), for all its efforts to break away from Stuart Ewen’s work Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (New York, 1976) and others, was still a top-heavy exercise.

3. For an isomorphic argument in a different context, see the last chapter of Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (New York, 1993) in which he argues that the ecological changes in New Zealand brought about by European colonization mimic events elsewhere in the early modern era, but occur sufficiently late to allow them to be recorded in detail.

4. JH, 28 March, 1858, LDS; Brigham Young to H.S. Eldrege, 20 November, 1858, SHS.

5. For observations about the “gap” in consumer culture history, see Daniel Horowitz, The Morality of Spending: Attitudes towards the Consumer Society in America, 1875-1940 (Baltimore, 1985), 190, xii; Tom Pendergast, “Consuming Questions: Scholarship on Consumerism in America to 1940” American Studies International XXXVI (1998): 29; and Lawrence B. Glickman, ed. Consumer Society in American History: A Reader. Ithaca, 1999, 405. Glickman and Pendergast, however, somewhat overstate the deficiencies in our knowledge. See, for example Stuart Blumin, The Emergence of The Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City (New York, 1989), particularly chapter five. A more recent–and decidedly less quantitative–exploration can be found in Lori Merish, Sentimental Materialism: Gender, Commodity Culture, and Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Durham, NC, 2000). Richard Brown, Modernization: The Transformation of American Life, 1600-1865 (New York, 1976); and Richard R. John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge, 1995).

6. Daniel Walker Howe, Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Cambridge, 1997), 111.

7. For two recent studies of the quest for identity within Evangelical Protestantism, see Randolph A. Roth, The Democratic Dilemma: Religion, Reform, and the Social Order in the Connecticut River Valley of Vermont, 1791-1850 (Cambridge, 1985) and David Hackett, The Rude Hand of Innovation: Religion and Social Order in Albany, New York, 1652-1836 (Oxford, 1991); as the ethnocultural political historians have argued, affiliation with a political party could be as much an assertion of a personal identity as a considered assessment of an election’s issues. See Daniel Feller, “Politics and Society: Toward a Jacksonian Synthesis,” Journal of the Early Republic 10 (Summer 1990), 135-63; and Robert P. Swierenga, “Ethnoreligious Political Behavior in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” in Religion and American Politics, ed. Mark Noll (New York, 1990); for the rising preoccupation with personal identity in popular literature, see Howe’s concise summary in Making the American Self, 118-121; for sexuality, see John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (Chicago, 1997).

8. Isaiah Coombs to Father, 14 Dec. 1862; Coombs to granddaughter, n.d, but probably 1880 (ms 1198), LDS.

9. Coombs’s shifting approach to goods resembles the transition from materialist to marginalist economics in that the latter stresses the marginal “utility” of a given good to individual consumers rather than an universal value inherent in an object. For a discussion of that transformation and its relationship to the rise of consumer culture, see James Livingston, “Modern Subjectivity and Consumer Culture” in Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Society, ed. Susan Strasser, Charles McGovern, Mathias Judt (New York, 1998).

10. The literature on difference and cultural meaning is extensive. Early relevant works building on Ferdinand Saussure’s insights include Roland Barthes, Elements de Semiologie (Paris, 1964). For the application of such theory to the study of consumption, see Jean Baudrillard, Le Systeme des Objets (Paris, 1986) and Marshall Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago, 1976).

11. For example, James Henretta, “Families and Farms: Mentalite in Pre-Industrial America,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 35 (1978): 1-31 and Michael Merrill, “Cash is Good to Eat: Self-Sufficiency and Exchange in the Rural Economy of the United States,” Radical History Review 4, no 1. (Winter 1977): 42-70.

12. Mary Gates to her sister, 29 July 1868 (?) (MS 12618), LDS, Issac Sowby, Account Book, unpaginated entry for Mr. Gustave Hendrod, (ms 9550), LDS; Coombs, Diary, May 31, 1871.

13. Marilyn Barker, The Legacy of Mormon Furniture (Salt Lake City, 1995), 120-22.

14. Aroet Lucious Hale to Companion, 10 July 1855 (ms 3212) folder 1, item 5, LDS.

15. For “bespoken” work see Jens Weibye, Diary, December, 1863, in particular January, 1864 but references appear even as late as June 23, 1868 (ms 1432), LDS; Sowby, Account Book; Lucious Hale, Diary, 1857, (ms 3212) folder 2, item 10, LDS.

16. Patty Sessions, Diary, June 29, 1855 (ms 2737) LDS; similar references abound in Mormon journals. See the overlapping references to quilting and socializing in Martha Spence (Heywood), Journals, January 12, 1857, (ms 6296), LDS and Ruth Page Rogers, Diary, p. 56, (ms 1854), LDS. For a late reference of same, see Robert Lindsay, Diary, November 24, 1890 (ms 9372), LDS.

17. Thomas Carter, “Spindles and Spoon Racks: Local Style in Nineteenth-Century Mormon Furniture,” in The Old Traditional Way of Life, eds. Robert Walls and George Shoemaker (Bloomington, IN, 1989), 40-55; Elaine Thatcher. “Some Chairs for my Family: Furniture in Nineteenth-Century Cache Valley,” Utah Historical Quarterly 56 (1988): 350-351.

18. As quoted Kate B. Carter, ed., Our Pioneer Heritage (Salt Lake City, 1958-77), 2:578.

19. Coombs, Diary, July 23, 1866.

20. Ibid., October 27, 1860; Letters of the clerk of the Pinto Co-op Stock Company are in the ledger for the Company in the DUP Museum in Parowan, Utah. Many of the books held at the museum are not on display, and accordingly have not been catalogued. The quotation comes from the letter fragment dated Nov. 17, 1872.

21. Harriet Bradley to Brother, 2 May 1869, (ms 70001-014), DUP-S; Martha Spence Heywood, October 1, 1856, (ms 696), LDS; Martha Cragun Cox, (MAN-146), SHS; see also undated (but likely 1860s from content) letter to “Frank” (? illegible) in Beecroft Family Papers (ms 1915), LDS.

22. See Lewis David, Diary, p. 13, LDS; Harriet Dusenbury, Diary, March 2, 1864, LDS; Ben Knowlton, Diary, Jan 23, 1874, LDS; Patty Sessions, Diary, June 29, 1855, Jan 21, 1885, Jan. 25, 1885, LDS.

23. Jesse Smith, Diary, Nov. 8, 1860 (ms 1489), LDS; George Washington Bean, Diary, Jan 8, Feb 2, 1851 (MAN A-68), SHS; John Bennion, Diary, Nov. 13, 1858 (ms D 1121) folder 8, LDS; See also Coombs, Diary, March 8, 1862; Christopher Arthur Jones, Diary, 15 (ms 1934) folder 1, LDS; John Powell, Diary, 76 (ms 604), LDS; Angelina Farley, Diary, Aug 4,7, Dec. 21, 1851 (ms 8499), LDS; George Barber, Diary, April 14, 1852, LDS.

24. Mary Jane Lambson to Bathseba Smith, 10 September 1848, Bathseba Smith Papers, (ms 1322), box 10, LDS.

25. Deseret News, 28 September 1854.

26. Daily Telegraph, 3 July 1868.

27. Lydia Lyman to Maria Lyman, 15 December 15 1855 (ms 9377), LDS, see also letters to “Mother” and “Aunt” in same collection. Note that (ms 9377) is in the collection of Elizabeth Callister but cataloged under the name Leo Lyman Finlinson; see also Elise Maria Patridge, “Letters,” (ms 9546), LDS.

28. Fragment of letter to unknown, 1869, Mrs. Susan Rheads, DUP-C. For further complaints about the lack of commodity choice in Coalville at this time, see Margaret Lee, “History of Merchants of Coalville,” Merchandising folder, Kate B. Carter Collection, DUP-S; Dorothy Beard Blanpied, “The Coalville Co-op,” Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Report, n.d., DUP-S, See also Norma Eilen Pyper Thompson, “A Community Study of Coalville Utah, 1859-1914” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1990).

29. Austin N. Ward, Male Life Among the Mormons: or the Husband in Utah, ed. Maria Ward (New York, 1859), 34-35.

30. Mrs. Benjamin T. Ferris, The Mormons at Home (New York: Dix and Edwards, 1856), 147; William E. Walters, Life Among the Mormons (New York, 1868), 179.

31. See for example the advertisements in the Deseret News for Livingston and Kinkead throughout the 1850s, or those for Ross and Barratt in the 1860s; quotation from Daily Telegraph, 27 Feb., 1868.

32. “The Last,” Daily Telegraph, 16 Nov., 1868.

33. The Youth’s Educator, manuscript newspaper of the Mutual Improvement Association of Pinto, Utah, March 7, 1878, DUP-P. Note that the Educator is rolled by issue date, wrapped in a ribbon, and in a display case near the door.

34. See for example, Russell W. Belk. “Battling Worldliness in the New Zion: Mercantilism versus Homespun in Nineteenth Century Utah.” Journal of Macromarketing 14 (1994): 15-18.

35. Leonard Arrington, Feramorz Fox, and Dean May, Building the City of God; Community and Cooperation Among the Mormons (Salt Lake City, 1976), chapter 5; Maureen Ursenbach Beecher. “Women’s Work on the Mormon Frontier.” Utah Historical Quarterly 49 (1981): 283-284.

36. Mrs. Phebe Boggs Prince, “Early Merchandising in Washington, as told to her daughter Mrs. H.W. Prisbrey” (1941) in the “Merchandising” folder of the Kate B. Carter collection, DUP-S; see also the accounts of merchandising in Coalville, Hurricane, Logan, Lake Shore, and Iron Counties in the same folder.

37. As quoted in William R. Palmer, “Early Merchandising in Utah,” in College of Southern Utah Lecture Series in Cedar City, UT (n.p. 1963), 5. See also his “Early Merchandising in Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly 31 (Winter 1963): 36-50.

38. Maren Kirstina Anderson Nielson, Autobiography 1863-1892, n.d, LDS. (likely 1870). As Davis Bitton said in his Guide to Mormon Diaries and Autobiographies (Provo, Utah, 1977), 259, Nielson is “long on human interest, but short on names and dates.”

39. Anders Swensen, Letter to family in Norway, 15 July 1877, as quoted in Marilyn Barker, The Legacy of Mormon Furniture (Salt Lake City, 1995), 125.

40. Barker argues in The Legacy of Mormon Furniture that the limited importation of eastern furniture in the early 1860s pushed less skilled native-born craftsmen out of the Utah trade, but left their more successful British and European competitors. Indeed, various census data reveal a steadily increasing number of cabinetmakers in Utah until the 1870 census. See Barker, The Legacy of Mormon Furniture, 125. Henry Dinwoodey, a Salt Lake City Cabinetmaker, traveled East to arrange the shipments of first imported furniture just as the transcontinental link was completed. See Olive Wooley Burt, “Founder of Tradition: A Story of Utah’s Furniture Development,” The Utah Magazine (July 1946): 46.

41. “Minutes of the Meeting of Directors of the Brigham City Mercantile and Manufacturing Association, March 30, 1874” (LR 933 34), reel 44, Box 50, LDS; Kari Michele Main, “Pursuing ‘The Things of This World’: Mormon Resistance and Assimilation as Seen in the Furniture of the Brigham City Cooperative (1874-1888)” (Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Delaware, 1997), 15, 69, 26-29, 71.

42. David Blanke, Sowing the American Dream: How Consumer Culture Took Root in the Rural Midwest (Athens, Ohio, 2000), chapter three; see also Jeffrey S. Adler, Yankee Merchants and the Making of the Urban West: The Rise and Fall of Antebellum St. Louis (New York, 1991).

43. Barry Allen Kessler, “Of Workshops And Warerooms: The Economic and Geographic Transformation of Furniture Making in Chester County, Pennsylvania, 1780-1850” (master’s thesis, University of Delaware, 1987); David Jaffee, “Peddlers of Progress and the Transformation of the Rural North, 1760-1860,” Journal of American History 78 (September 1991): 511-35.

44. “The Last,” Daily Telegraph, 16 Nov., 1868.

45. Harriet Bradley to Brother, 2, May 1869 (ms 700010-014), DUP-S; “Something about Stoves,” Deseret News, 16 Sept, 1869.

46. W.H. Leaver, History of Sanpete and Emery Counties (n.p., 1898), 209, in the library at DUP-S.

47. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973), passim.

48. For Coombs’s early description of goods see earlier references; Coombs, Diary, Dec. 11, 1880, see also March 18, 1880, Oct 12, 1880, March 21, 1881, May 10, 1881, Jan. 26, 1882; March 12, 1884; Coombs to “Wife”, n.d., (ms 1198), folder 4, LDS.

49. See nearly daily references to clothing as part of bespoken tailor work in Weibye’s diary, Jan. and Feb 1863, March, 1867, Jan., Feb., and March of 1868, Sept. 24, 1869, Aug. 5, 1870, Sept. 3, 1870, Jan 12, 1871, June 19, 1880. Weibye, Diary, LDS.

50. Patty Sessions, Diary, (ms 2737) Box 89, LDS. Compare Powell’s description of goods in his diary from 58-90 and those from 181-195. John Powell, Diary, LDS; Elmina Taylor, Diary, Jan. 7, 1880 (ms 1393) LDS, Christopher Arthur Jones, Diary, March 9, 1890 (ms D 1934), LDS; Belle Harris, June 13 1880, as quoted from her diary in “Life of Belle Haris Nelson” by Albert Silars Haris (ms D1818), folder 1, LDS. See also Hyrum Bradley Clawson, Diary, October 26, 1884, July 1, 1887, September 27, 1887 (ms 1776), LDS; Zina Elizabeth Booth, Diary, July 2, Aug. 9, Dec. 17, 1896, June 6, June 20, Sept. 12, May 21, Dec. 2, 1897, Jan. 14, Feb. 8, Feb. 21, 1898 (ms 1393), LDS.

51. Clawson, Diary, Nov. 11, 1884, Dec. 9. 1886; Unknown to Mrs. Caroline Callister, May 6, 1878 (ms 9377), LDS. Note that the letter is contained in the collection of Elizabeth Callister but filed under the name of Leo Lyman Finlinson. Also Weibye, Diary, Nov. 4. 1879, June 19, 1880, June 23, 1881, March 19, 1882; “Nellie” to E.T. Taylor, Nov. 3, 1901, Elmina Taylor collection (ms 13493), LDS.

52. Davis Family, Scrapbook, DUP-S, unpaginated, 1882. See also Relief Society Meeting Records, LR 3407 Series 14 #2, Jan. 3, 1902, LDS; Mary Pendelton to Isaiah Coombs, Jan 23, 1873 (ms 1198), LDS; Jane Johnson, diary, March 20 1880 (ms 8795), LDS; 15th Ward, Scrapbook, clipping from Oct. 17 1904 (Daily Tribune?), DUP-S; Clawson, Diary April 19, 21, 23, 25, May 12, June 3, 1886.

53. Mary Amelia Burton, diary, June 1, 15, September 25, 1893 (ms 6327), LDS; “Your Friend” to Eliza Persis Farnsworth Rhead, Oct. 12(?), 1875, DUP-C. See note 13 regarding Rhead’s identity; See also John Moon Clements, Journal, Dec. 6th 1879 (ms 1196), LDS.

54. Coombs, Diary, Sept 11, 1872, April 8, 1873.

55. Jens Weibye, Diary, Aug 5, Dec 29, 1890. Also see letter fragment by unknown to Zina Young, Box 2, Folder 5, and letter from Zina Card to Zina Young, Box 2, Folder 9 (ms 4780) LDS; P.D. John to Isaiah Coombs, March 4, 1874 (ms 1198), LDS; See also Smith, diary, 2 (ms 6310), LDS. Note that this ms contains elements from two periods, one dating to 1909 and the other from roughly 1890, but that the latter date has been applied to both sections. And see Margaret Marind Merril Eldredge, Diary, 173, LDS.

56. Catherine C. Grier, Culture and Comfort: Parlor Making and Middle-Class Identity, 1850-1930 (Washington, 1988), pp. 9-17, 151-158. Somewhat confusingly, this monograph is a shorter and partially reconsidered version of her Culture and Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery, 1850-1930 (Amherst, MA, 1988), which accompanied a 1988-89 exhibition at the Strong Museum.

57. For early references to Godey’s, see Erastus Snow to Wife, 23, March 1855 (ms 5394), LDS; Daily Telegraph, 8 July, 14 October, 1864.

58. John Bennion, Diary, Feb. 10, 1871; Isaiah Coombs to Fanny, Oct. 27, 1875, (ms 1198), LDS, Diary, May 29, 1878; Jens Weibye, Diary, December 26, 1879, Feb. 14. 1882; 15th Ward Riverside Stake Relief Minutes, September 8, 1880 (LR 2848 sr. 14), LDS. The Relief Society has long been the primary women’s organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Founded as the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo in 1842, the Society suspended its activities in 1844 amid Emma Smith’s use of the society as a forum for her protests against plural marriage. Utah witnessed a grassroots resurgence of relief societies in the 1850s, this time meeting with complete Church support. The Utah War forced many of the societies to halt their work until 1866 when–concomitant with the reorganization of the Mormon “Schools of the Prophets,”–Brigham Young called on Eliza Snow to reinstate the Society in each community.

Snow significantly expanded the society’s activities during her twenty-year administration. Under Snow, as the historian Maureen Ursenbach Beecher details, the Society purchased properties and built Relief Society halls, “established cooperative and commission stores, set up a grain-storage program and built granaries, provided scholarships for women to attend medical schools, and operated schools for nurses and midwives in the Intermountain area, operated a hospital, founded a newspaper, staged mass meetings to express their views on political issues, and promoted women’s suffrage.” See Allan Kent Powell, ed. Utah History Encyclopedia (Salt Lake City 1994), s.v. “Relief Society,” by Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, and her, Women of Covenant: The Story of the Relief Society (Salt Lake City, 1992).

59. “Education,” Deseret News, 11 March, 1869.

60. Relief Society, Meeting Records, Oct. 11, 1889 (LR 3407 sr. 14, #2), LDS.

61. Relief Society, Meeting Records, Feb. 8, 1894 (LR 5252 sr. 14), LDS; Relief Society, Meeting Records, May 8, 1886 (LR 8046. Sr. 14), LDS.

62. Merish, Sentimental Materialism, 90; Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, The Gates Ajar (Boston, 1869), 183-184; unknown to Zina Card Brown, n.d., but likely 1877-1882 (ms 4780), box 2, folder 5, LDS.

63. See Luke William Gallup, “Diary,” March 27, 1872 (ms 8402), LDS; See accession sheet for object 9107, DUP-S. Although Helen Clawson Wells donated this item to the DUP-S marginal notations indicate that the monograph was bought by her grandmother, Harriet Cecelia Jones (Harriet Morris by the date of the book’s purchase), shortly after publication.

64. For a study that uses scrapbooks in examining responses to national media, see chapter one of Ellen Gruber Garvey, The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s (New York, 1996).

65. For the role of specialization in Victorian culture, see Ames, Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture (Philadelphia, 1992), 238. See also Grier, Culture and Comfort, chapter 5.

66. Daniels, Scrapbook; Ames, Death in the Dining Room, 176, 155-164; J.R. Kearl, Clayne L. Pope, and Larry T. Wimmer, compilers, Index to the 1850, 1860 & 1870 Censuses of Utah: Heads of Households (Baltimore, 1981), tables for 1870; Edith Ann Smith, Scrapbook, (MS 1317), folder 2, LDS; Callister, Scrapbook, LDS.

67. Pamela Walker Laird, Advertising Progress: American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing (Baltimore, 1998), chapter two, also 263.

68. “True Affection,” Deseret Weekly News, 16 February, 1854.

69. “S.” (Susan Gates?) to Elmina Taylor, 24 Dec 1895 (ms 13493), LDS.

70. Luke Ledger William Gallup, Diary, June 5, 1853, March, 1871 (ms 8402), LDS.

71. Gallup, Diary, March, 1871; Minutes of the Relief Society of Grantsville, March 1, 1875, (lr 3407 series 14, folder #2), LDS.

72. Karen Hulttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America 1830-1970 (New Haven, 1982).

73. “Articles Subscribed to and Adopted by the Young Ladies Department of the Ladies Cooperative Retrenchment Association,” May 28, 1870 (ms D 4780), box 3, folder 4, LDS.

74. Coombs, Diary, Aug. 28, 1873.

75. Richard Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons Houses Cities (New York, 1992), 403-409.

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John Jay College of Criminal Justice

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