Food Co-ops Before the Great Depression

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Food Co-ops in America (Cornell University Press, 2013) by Anne Meis Knupfer details the historical influences of food co-ops in both their rise and their struggle as they competed with chain stores. Knupfer is a professor at Purdue University and an academic writer of topics related to cultural foundations and their effects. Her research on food co-ops and the historical events associated with their prominence and serves to narrate shifting ideologies both in regards to and a result of food consumerism and consumption in America. The following book excerpt details food co-ops from before the Great Depression.

When the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831, he was astonished at the number of associations formed by Americans. He stated, “I have often admired the extreme skills with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it.” Such organizing, in his estimation, provided evidence of a democratic impulse. His visit also coincided with the growth of workingmen’s associations, which established some of the first producer and consumer cooperatives. The history of food cooperatives in the United States is an enduring one, one that is at least 180 years old. In fact, the first American cooperatives predate the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, started in Rochdale, England in 1844.

These first co-ops were created as economic alternatives to industrial capitalism. A working-class and ethnic consciousness fostered members’ participation in decisions related to their co-ops’ daily operations and utopian ideals. Collectively sharing their money and labor gave them more control over their work conditions, the opportunity to share in whatever profit or surplus they earned, and to reinvest their dollars back into their co-ops. But would their food cooperatives be able to compete with grocery chain stores during the early twentieth century?

By then the vision of food cooperatives had enlarged as middle-class reformers advocated for safe food legislation, educated consumers about their rights, and protested the rising costs of food. As such, consumer activism grew out of various constituencies, ideologies, and political affiliations. These differences sometimes led to heated discussions and debates about the goals and purposes of cooperative associations. How should the Rochdale principles of political neutrality and democracy be practiced? How should ideological and political differences be re- solved? Could co-ops be both successful businesses and engage in participatory democracy? These debates reflected the growing pains of an emerging national cooperative movement.

The First Food Co-ops

During the 1830s, laborers organized cooperatives to protect their own economic interests. At one meeting in 1836, where 200 workers discussed cooperatives, a worker sharply asked who was “reaping the profits of your labor”? Later that year, hatters, tailors, saddlers, and harness makers pooled their monies to start their own producer cooperatives, ensured workers’ control of labor conditions, wages, and sales. But how to control for the rising prices of food and other necessities, to strengthen their purchasing power? As early as 1829, workers in Philadelphia had opened their own store so that they could buy at cost. In 1832, a group of workers and farmers formed the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics, and Other Workingmen. They, too, were interested in consumer cooperatives and buying clubs. But the Association’s goals were larger as well: to reduce the twelve-hour working day; to eradicate the trucking system, through which they were paid in goods, not wages; and to promote education for themselves and their children.

However, it was the Working Men’s Protective Union, started in Boston in 1845, that led to the establishment of more cooperative stores. Inspired by the Union, a number of workingmen’s associations federated into the New England Workingmen’s Association, later named the New England Protective Union. The Union started its own stores where members could buy groceries and other supplies. Originally, the Union stores were open only to members of “men of good character,” those who did not drink or sell liquor. Later, Union members agreed to open their stores to nonmembers who paid market prices for goods. By 1852, the Union boasted 167 stores, with a capital of $241,000 and sales of $1.69 million. Five years later, there were at least 800 union stores in thirteen states, mostly in the Northeast.

The union stores were part of a utopian vision to change society. Members were concerned about working conditions, especially the twelve-hour work day. Toward this end, they invited a representative from the women workers of Lowell to their 1845 convention to advocate for the ten-hour work day. At the same time, members did not want to pay higher prices for food and hoped that their union stores would replace grocery stores. Despite its rapid growth, the New England Protective Union did not survive through the Civil War. Labor historian Philip Foner has argued that other grocery stores lowered their prices to undersell the union stores, as well as sold on credit. Another historian surmised the opposite: that many of the union co-ops sold their products at cost and extended too much credit. Both historians were probably right on the issue of credit.

Post–Civil War Co-ops

Following the Civil War, labor groups renewed their interest in cooperatives. From 1865 to 1890, cooperators were “practical utopians,” to use historian Steve Leikin’s phrase. The nearly 500 producer cooperatives and thousands of consumer cooperatives established then allowed workers to have greater control over their labor and their purchasing power. Workers believed that the democratic practices of cooperatives would grant them their due claim as “citizens of the republic” and that they would no longer be subject to industrial corruption. The National Labor Union (NLU), organized in Baltimore in 1866, encouraged members to form cooperative stores, as they were “the only true protection which the working man has against the over-shadowing influence of capital.” Even so, the union was short-lived and no records exist of cooperatives being organized through the NLU.

Two other labor groups — the Knights of St. Crispin (1867–1874) and the Knights of Labor (1869–1890) — supported buying clubs and cooperative stores, although most of those also failed. Loosely organized, the Knights of Crispin was especially concerned with the introduction of machinery into the workplace. One alternative was to start its own producer co-ops, although few workers did so because of little capital. The Knights of Labor’s mission was also an economic one: “the complete emancipation of the wealth producers from the thralldom and loss of wage slavery.” As Lawrence Glickman has discussed, workers hoped to replace their “wage slavery” with a living wage so that they could contribute to “a democratic political economy.” In fact, many hoped that cooperation would eventually replace capitalism. The Knights of Labor organized a number of successful boycotts during the 1880s, which led to a surge in membership of over 750,000 by 1886. However, some of its leaders stymied workers’ activism by insisting that workers’ education precede boycotts. Despite the leaders and members’ interests in producer and consumer co-ops, these co-ops largely failed because of lack of workers’ capital, the railroad companies and wholesalers’ opposition to them, and technological changes in factories.

When workers in Springfield, Massachusetts organized the Sovereigns of Industry in 1874, they too were determined to eradicate monopolies and the “evils of the existing industrial and commercial system.” This group proposed, among other ideas, “to establish a better system of economical exchanges and to promote, on a basis of equity and liberty, mutual fellowship and co-operative action among the producers and the consumers of wealth throughout the earth.” Members started buying clubs according to the Rochdale principles. These principles of democracy (one member, one vote) limited buying of shares, and the redistribution of surplus through a patronage refund ensured a collective solidarity. At the height of the movement in 1875, there were over 280 local councils, each with its own buying club. The depression of 1877–1878 forced many clubs to close. Five, though, remained open until 1913, including the Sovereigns Trading Company of New Britain, Connecticut. One of the largest co-ops in New England by 1910, it had 237 members, a real estate value of $470,000, and a surplus of almost $15,000 returned to its members.

Ethnic Co-ops

Not surprisingly, many co-ops during the late 1800s formed along ethnic lines. To be sure, the sharing of language and culture facilitated their establishment within communities. The oldest cooperative in Massachusetts, the German Co-operative Association in Lawrence, was started by cotton and woolen mill operatives in 1874. As of 1890, this association had almost 350 members and over $90,000 in dividends distributed to its members. In Quinsigamond, a suburb of Worchester, the First Swedish Co-operative Store Company started in 1882. Other Swedish cooperatives were established throughout the state, including the Swedish Mercantile Co-operative Company in Worchester (1884), the Scandia Co-operative Grocery Company in Fitchburg (1894), and the People’s Co-operative Store in Orange (1901).

Beyond New England, there were ethnic and religious groups who established cooperative stores to ensure their very survival in their westward settlements. Alongside settlements of immigrants and religious sects, cooperatives spread from the Midwest to the West. As early as the 1870s, Mormon women had formed their own co-ops in Salt Lake City under the church auspices. By the end of the 1800s, there were at least 150 cooperatives in Utah, which sold clothing, food, and other goods. In California, the first cooperative was started in San Francisco as early as 1867. More co-ops followed, especially after the passage of a state law in 1894 that required cooperatives to practice the Rochdale principle of the “one member, one vote.” The reason for the law is not clear, as many co-ops started by single ethnic groups fiercely protected their members’ rights. Finnish immigrants were especially active in forming Rochdale cooperatives in the state; by 1917, they had opened over 140 of them.

Food Co-ops, 1900–1930

That the cooperative movement expanded during the Progressive era was not coincidental. Alan Brinkley and Michael McGerr have argued that “reform” liberals of the early 1900s were opposed to unbridled industrial capitalism. Some of them, Gary Gerstle noted, even advocated for “industrial democracy” in hopes that the disproportionate imbalance of economic and political power would be redressed. One of these reformers was John Dewey, who argued that democracy was both political and economic. As he phrased it, “What does democracy mean, save that the individual is to have a share in determining the conditions and the aims of his own work.” Other agreed with him, including Henry Carter Adams, Dewey’s colleague at the University of Michigan, who openly favored a “cooperative commonwealth of owner-workers” as early as 1881. For this and other public statements, he was fired from Cornell University and then forced to retract his political views to keep his professorship at the University of Michigan.

Women’s Advocacy and Food Legislation

Specific concerns about food safety and consumer protection, as well as ones of labor and agriculture, prompted women reformers, socialists, intellectuals, farmers, immigrants, and labor unionists to advocate for food cooperatives. During the Progressive era, the number of food and other co-ops grew at a tremendous pace, with over 2,500 cooperative societies and buying associations as of 1920. This growth also had been fostered by the establishment of regional and national organizations, especially the Co-operative League of the U.S.A. (CLUSA), founded in 1916. Such organizations, as well as a number of colleges and universities, offered summer institutes and courses to train managers and bookkeepers for co-ops, as well as to widen the public’s knowledge about cooperative history, principles, and ideologies. Some ardent co-opers and socialists even believed that co-ops would contribute to a new economic and democratic society. This often led to fierce debates and ideological divides, especially within the CLUSA.

Women had expanded their public roles as municipal housekeepers, arguing that all issues relating to families required their involvement. Women’s clubs helped to shape legislation and public policy through their reformist activities. To add to this complexity was women’s role as primary consumers for their households, a role that advertisers tried to use to their advantage. Even so, women were a major, although often invisible, force behind consumer advocacy and food cooperatives. For example, the members of the American Home Economics Association, started in 1908 by chemist Ellen Swallow Richards, were interested in food safety. The American Pure Food League was organized by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), the National Consumers League (NCL), and the State Food Commissioners. In 1904, the GFWC organized a Pure Food Committee to interest citizens in food legislation, which resulted in Clean Food Clubs. One of these clubs, the Fifty-First Street Club, along with the Housewives League of Chicago, protested the unsanitary conditions and high prices of retail grocery stores. In 1912, they held an egg sale on Chicago’s street corners to break the price of storage eggs that were sold as fresh ones. Other club women joined them and sold eggs at ten cents below store price. The NCL, organized in 1899, was concerned with what Landon Storrs called “ethical consumption.” Through networks of women’s organizations, such as the GFWC and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the League encouraged women to buy clothing from factories that followed fair labor practices. The NCL’s label indicated those clothes that followed state factory regulations and whose factories were inspected by a League agent.

Many women also participated through the cooperative women’s guilds. Similar to women’s clubs, these groups engaged in social welfare and educational activities, pointing again to their tremendous esprit de corps, as well as their invisible work. For example, the Women’s Co-operative Guild of Minneapolis, in collaboration with other women’s auxiliaries and organized labor, gave a benefit program for flood victims in the South in 1927. Through this effort, they donated clothing and $35,000. They also contributed to a striking miners’ fund and provided a scholarship for a young local woman to attend the Northern States Co-operative League Training School. At Christmas, they gave baskets of food to poor families. Through the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, of which the guild was a member, they fought “to see the outlawry of war.” And they studied the cooperative movement. As one article encouraged the members: “Women, take your share of the responsibility! Organize, study Co-operation, take up committee work and talk Co-operation every day!”

Women and reformist groups’ involvement in consumer issues was critical, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had done little to ensure food protection. As early as 1880, reformers had recommended a national organization to regulate food and drugs but the proposition was defeated. Farmers, too, played an important role in promoting pure food legislation. The Farmers’ Alliance, concerned about what happened when they sold their livestock to the stock- yards, had pushed for a federal pure food law as early as 1881. Between 1860 and 1906, Congress was presented with over 190 bills for food and drug safety but only 8 passed. Finally, in 1902, Congress appropriated $5,000 to the Bureau of Chemistry (later the FDA) to study chemical preservatives and colors, and their effects. Dr. Harvey Wiley, then head of the Bureau, found evidence of “food adulteration.” With the support of women’s clubs, he convinced Congress to pass the Food and Drugs Act and Meat Inspection Act in 1906, and the first Certified Color regulations (seven colors suitable for use in foods) in 1907. Perhaps the club women had read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and worried about the quality of meat that they served their families. But Wiley understood that not only would consumers gain from this legislation but so would large food companies, such as Heinz and Kellogg, who could then assure their customers of high-quality products.

There were later attempts to create a national organization to protect consumers. In the late 1920s, reformers in Chicago tried to start the Consumers and Producers Foundation of America, with philanthropist and businessman Julius Rosenwald as its president. Its board of directors included members in labor, business, churches, women’s organizations, and former president Theodore Roosevelt. The founders intended to fund a national body of scientists and government officials to create standards in health and food products. Although there is no evidence that this foundation materialized, Rosenwald did invest $10,000 in the cooperative movement through the Co-operative Movement for Production and Marketing of Perishable Commodities. This organization promoted consumer cooperation and education, as well as better working conditions in factories. This group, too, was short-lived.

Clearly the quality and safety of food and health products were on consumers’ minds. Here, food cooperatives took the lead in ensuring members of high quality food by establishing their own food labels in the 1920s. Even so, they could not compete with chain stores, which then dominated much of the grocery business. Kroger Grocery & Baking Company, which had started with 40 stores in 1920, had over 5,500 stores by 1930. Safeway Stores had over 2,500 stores by 1931. The largest, though, was the A&P Company, with 16,000 stores as of 1929. Altogether, these chain stores earned 40 percent of all grocery sales as they offered more brand names and at lower prices. As Tracey Deutsch points out, grocery chain stores had other advantages as well, such as their layout and self-service. For example, Piggly Wiggly, a southern grocery chain store, used self-service and an “efficient” and “clean” layout to appeal to middle-class women who had previously had their domestic workers shop for them. In doing so, Lisa Tolbert argues, these stores offered women shoppers “a new cultural and commercial landscape.”

Despite such competition, a number of food cooperatives survived and even thrived. By 1935 the sales of 100 cooperatives affiliated with the Central Co-operative Wholesale (CCW) in the Midwest had increased more than Safeway Store, the A&P Company, or Kroger Grocery and Baking Company. Undoubtedly, customers appreciated the co-op labels for over 250 foods, which ensured their high quality. Not only did some co-ops compete successfully against grocery chain stores; in one case, a food co-op used a chain store’s lower prices to its advantage. When an A&P store opened next to a co-op at an undisclosed location and undersold sugar, co-op members banded together and bought only sugar at the A&P store so it would lose money. They then did the same with Campbell’s products and potatoes. Eventually, they forced the A&P store to close.

Widespread Support for Co-ops                                                  

Beyond their volunteerism and buying power, women became professionally involved in the cooperative movement. Initially, co-op boards and employees were mostly men. But over time women became bookkeepers, home economists, and dietitians for food co-ops. Still other women influenced the cooperative movement at the national level. For example, in 1912 Lilian Wyckoff Johnson and Ernestine Noa traveled to Rome to study with David Lubin, founder of the International Institute of Agriculture. Lubin’s interest in internationalizing agricultural cooperatives prompted Johnson to bring him to the Southern Commercial Congress’s conference that year. The two women then traveled across the United States for five months promoting cooperatives. In 1913, they joined a national commission to study European co-ops and were impressed by the number of co-operatives and credit unions in the nineteen countries they visited. In Denmark alone, there were over 1,500 cooperative societies as of 1914, with almost 336,000 members.

Another female leader known in the cooperative movement was Mary Arnold. A dietician and cafeteria operator at Cornell University, she started a small cafeteria in New York City as a consumers’ cooperative in 1919. Membership grew and within a year she opened another branch. Within ten years, the Consumers Co-operative Services had ten branches and almost 6,000 members. At the same time, she helped to establish the regional Eastern Co-operative League and the Eastern Co-operative Wholesale, serving as an officer for both. After seventeen years with the Consumers Co-operative Services, she worked as a co-op organizer in Nova Scotia under known co-op organizer, Father M. McCoady. In 1941, she organized credit unions and other co-ops for Maine lobster fishermen and produced a documentary film about their lives. The following year, she moved to Philadelphia and became director of the Philadelphia Area Co-operative Federation, as well as board member of the CLUSA and the Eastern Co-operative Wholesale.

Some colleges and universities, too, promoted cooperative education, con-firming that some professors supported “reform” liberalism. Many taught in land grant institutions whose mission included extension education. For ex- ample, the College of Agriculture at Cornell University offered a course on cooperation as early as 1911. In 1913, the University of Wisconsin hired a chair in cooperation. That same year, Hector McPherson, who had studied cooperatives in Europe, offered a course in cooperation at Oregon State College. One nonland grant school, the New School of Social Research in New York City, gave a lecture course on the cooperative movement in the early 1920s. At Columbia University, starting in 1927, philosopher and progressive educator Horace Kallen taught a course on “The Philosophy of Consumption.” It appears, however, as if many of these courses were historical and philosophical, rather than how-to ones.

Regional cooperatives and labor colleges pragmatically started their own schools to train managers, bookkeepers, and co-op staff, as well as to instruct them in the history and principles of the cooperative movement. The Eastern States Co-operative League in Brooklyn started its first cooperative training school in 1927. There, native-born and immigrant students — referred to as “a co-operative family of genuine international character” — listened to lectures by the CLUSA president Dr. J. P. Warbasse, Mary Arnold, and other cooperative leaders. They also took courses in the history and principles of consumers’ cooperation, cooperative management, and administration. In Minneapolis and Duluth, both strongholds of Finnish immigrants, cooperative schools were attended by students with socialist inclinations, union members, and supporters of the Workers Party. Two other labor schools — Bluefield Institute in Bluefield, West Virginia and Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York — taught immigrant and African American students hands-on business skills through their cooperative stores.

Reprinted from Food Co-ops in America: Communities, Consumption, and Economic Democracy, by Anne Meis Knupfer. Copyright© 2013 by Cornell University. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press.