Food Co-ops Before the Great Depression

Discover America’s long history of food co-ops and the historical events that influenced them.

  • Even before the Great Depression, members of food co-ops felt strongly about having a say in the quality and price of their groceries.
    Photo by Getty/sarahdoow
  • “Food Co-ops in America” by Anne Meis Knupfer serves as a unique analysis of the cultural significance of food co-ops in America and provides insight into the American ideologies of independence and community.
    Courtesy of Cornell University Press

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.



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