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The Merchant Era, 1770s–1850s

In the Merchant Era, abundant land and vast natural resources fueled economic opportunities. Most people lived in rural places and worked as farmers and artisans. Government encouraged agriculture, industry, transportation, and global trade. A market revolution affected enslaved and free people, transforming relationships between buyers and sellers and replacing face-to-face bargaining with less personal business.

Breaking A Monopoly

Fur trading, monopolized by the British Hudson’s Bay Company, was the principal business in the Dakota and Minnesota territories. The Métis, people of mixed European and Native American descent, broke the Company’s monopoly by transporting their furs south to St. Paul, where they received better prices from American merchants.

Red River cart, mid-1800s

Red River carts were ubiquitous in Minnesota and the Dakota Territory in the early and mid-19th century. They were used extensively in the fur trade. Drawn by oxen or horses, Red River carts carried pelts, dried meats, and animal-skin clothing made by Native Americans, as well as general freight and family or personal items. Several trade routes ran between St. Paul and the Canadian border, some close to the Red River. On return trips from the city, Red River carts carried dry goods, clothing, tools, hardware, guns, farm implements, tobacco, liquor, and other goods. Red River carts were common until the coming of railroads and steamships in the 1870s.

Move forward to the back wall.

Paul Revere, 1734–1818

Paul Revere learned the art of silver and goldsmithing from his father, Apollos Rivoire, a French Huguenot immigrant. Master of his craft shop, Revere created work that his contemporaries admired. To supplement his income as an artisan, Revere also worked as a copper plate engraver and a dentist.

Sugar tongs made by Paul Revere, silver, about 1792

Eli Whitney, 1765–1825

New Englander Eli Whitney traveled to the South to work as a teacher. In 1794, he patented a cotton gin, a new machine for taking seeds out of cotton more quickly. Cotton soon became the nation’s chief export, fueling the dramatic growth of slavery in the United States.

Eli Whitney's cotton gin model, about 1800

Turn around. The next stop is down the aisle in a case on the right.

The China Trade

American merchants participated in a lucrative but risky trade with China. They traveled the world looking for things the Chinese would buy. They then purchased Chinese goods for the American market. Trade made Americans resourceful and created wealth for almost everyone, including the Chinese merchant Howqua, who became one of the richest men in the world.

Tea chest, late 1700s

George Washington owned this Chinese-made tea chest. Merchants imported many grades of tea at different prices, enabling nearly all Americans to enjoy tea.

The next stop is in front of the statue to your left.

Business of Slavery

Slavery created enormous profits not only for Southern planters and slave traders, but also for Northern cotton-mill owners and investors. Nearly one million enslaved Africans, defined as property, were wrenched from their Upper South families. Some bought their freedom; more fought back by running away or even taking their own lives.

Sculpture of enslaved family

Slaves were sold off the plantation for later auction. In the scene depicted in this exhibition, set in the upper South, the parents had no warning when traders came for their son.

Your next stop is directly behind you, on the front wall.

Early Years, 1750s–1850s

Advertising grew in a haphazard way. Created by printers, manufacturers, merchants, and a handful of local agents, advertising focused on the names of sellers and the quality of the product. Often plastered on buildings, ads turned public spaces into marketplaces.

Patent Medicine Pioneers, 1850s–1920s

Patent medicine makers developed branding techniques that linked their products to a personality—often themselves. Some of their pitches were based on time-honored approaches to healing that worked. Others made false promises. These dishonest pitches eroded consumer confidence, led to regulation, and pushed advertising agencies to distinguish themselves from hucksters and showmen.

Establishing the Business, 1870s–1920s

The advertising business grew up alongside mass production. Selling strategies such as branding and national campaigns guaranteed a steady demand for new products. A new breed of agents created full-service agencies with transparent billing systems. They designed as well as placed ads and staked their success on trust.

Trade card with promotional character known as Slicker Boy, about 1900

Working together, manufacturers and advertisers created the concept of “branding.” Branding encouraged consumers to choose, trust, and remember certain products over others. An effective brand reassured consumers about the quality and consistency of mass-produced products—from food to soap—that had once been made at home or purchased from local manufacturers.

Turn around and walk around the corner into the next section. The tractor is your next stop.