Transformation and Criticism

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This 1879 map of Cohoes, New York shows the Erie Canal (center) and feeder Champlain Canal (lower) and lists the many businesses that prospered because of access to canal transport. Courtesy of Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth.

New American Consumers

Just as the Erie Canal greatly reduced the cost of transporting goods across the country, it also fostered an increase in prices for raw commodities being produced in the west. For example, between 1825 and 1835 prices for flour sold by farmers in Cincinnati nearly doubled, while prices for corn were nearly tripled. The Erie Canal was possibly the single greatest generator of American market expansion and consumer demand in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Increasing production of American agriculture and manufactured goods was not an accidental byproduct of the Erie Canal. Businesses and government leaders, desirous of decreasing American dependence on foreign goods, viewed the Canal as one catalyst for raising levels of domestic production. The increased availability of finished goods and the related rise of wealth and consumer demand triggered major changes in Americans’ lifestyles. People now had access to a greater variety of essentials (foodstuffs, clothing, tools and farming implements, building supplies) as well as access to luxury goods including pre-made clothing from Cohoes and Troy, cast iron stoves from Albany, and decorative home furnishings from New York City’s cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe. All of these were promoted through the emerging advertising industry.