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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Fall 2000 > Pilgrims, Patriots and Products

Pilgrims, Patriots and Products

John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance calendar shows a farmer spreading the alarm that the British were coming, 1889.


These two nineteenth-century advertisements for food products depict Priscilla and John Alden, pilgrim settlers made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem, "The Courtship of Miles Standish."


Catalogue of house plans sold by Sears, Roebuck & Company, 1928. The cover features "The Lexington," described as "an impressive and dignified study in modern colonial architecture."

Stalwart pilgrims make their way across the canned food labels. Furniture manufacturers advertise "Mayflower Rocking Chairs" and "Myles Standish Chests" that had few if any historical precedents. "John Alden" and "Paul Revere" are popular silver patterns. Highly imaginary illustrations of Revolutionary War events on calendars promote life insurance for the John Hancock Company. These and other images depicting the intersection of the colonial revival movement and the marketplace are featured in SPNEA's latest exhibition, Pilgrims, Patriots, and Products: Selling the Colonial Image. The exhibition will be on view in SPNEA's gallery at One Bowdoin Square, Boston, from October 25 through April 27, 2001.

The colonial revival phenomenon, which developed in the decades following the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, presented a vision of stability and harmony at a time when many Americans perceived that their country was in crisis. Economic uncertainty, labor unrest, rapid industrialization and urbanization, and a rise in immigration contributed to a sense of chaos and loss in the minds of many citizens. In response to this upheaval, Americans looked to their colonial past for validation and reassurance. Believing that their ancestors led purer and more dignified lives, Americans began to embrace the objects and imagery of the earlier time with enthusiasm. Simultaneous with their attraction to the past was their transformation into a society of consumers. Entrepreneurs capitalized on this revived interest in the colonial by manufacturing reproductions of colonial goods and by using colonial imagery to sell everything from gelatine to insurance.

The most enduring impact of the colonial revival was on domestic architecture. Plans for modest colonial-style dwellings were marketed by Sears, Roebuck and other companies, who stressed that this "type of home brings forth thought of the colonial days when love of home and woman were the most sacred emotions in the hearts of men. The environment of such a home can produce only men and women of sterling worth."

Drawn largely from SPNEA's Library and Archives, the objects in the exhibition include late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century product catalogues, trade cards, advertisements, calendars, posters, and other items of ephemera that depict a fanciful interpretation of colonial and patriotic imagery.

-Lorna Condon, Director of Library & Archives

Pilgrims, Patriots and Products