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"Buy for the Sake of the Slave":
Abolitionism and the Origins of American Consumer Activism
Not long ago, two members of my graduate seminar Consumer Society in Comparative Perspective sent messages to the class encouraging us to boycott certain places and products. One informed us of a movement to boycott the Baseball Hall of Fame until the director apologizes to Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon for uninviting them to a ceremony honoring the movie Bull Durham because of their opposition to the U.S.-Iraq war. Another urged us to buy so-called fair trade coffee: "I may have to give up my favorite brand so I don't hear the screams from my coffee grinder at home."1 Such consumerist calls-to-arms have become increasingly common. In recent years, Americans have boycotted products (grapes), musical groups (the Dixie Chicks), corporations (Disney), a state (South Carolina, for flying the confederate flag), and, even nations (France). What is the genealogy of this form of civic engagement? For how long have Americans considered consumption (or nonconsumption) to be political?
To the extent that they have traced this history, most scholars describe consumer politics as a twentieth-century phenomenon. After an obligatory mention of the boycotts of the Revolutionary Era, historians of consumer activism have, for the most part, leapfrogged the nineteenth century entirely to examine what they take to be the birth of modern consumer activism in the Progressive Era. American consumer activism, in this genealogy, is discontinuous: born prematurely in the 1770s, it was dormant for more than a century before emerging periodically in the twentieth century, in the 1900s, 1930s, 1960s, and 1990s. In this article, I argue, by contrast, that modern American consumer activism began in a period that has been largely ignored by historians: the first half of the nineteenth century. To make this case, I focus on the "free produce" movement, the efforts of mostly Quaker and free black abolitionists to encourage consumers to avoid slave-made goods and to purchase products made by "free labor." Consciously adopting the strategies of the British antislavery sugar boycotters of the 1790s, free produce activists became active in [End Page 889] the United States in the 1820s. They believed that boycotting slave-made goods was a necessary but insufficient response to the evil of slavery. They argued that it was also important to promote a "free labor" alternative. To this end, they organized "free produce" stores, the first of which opened in 1826 in Baltimore. Most stores sold clothing and dry goods but some also offered free labor shoes, soaps, ice cream, and candy. Philadelphia was the capital of free produce agitation, but, over time, more than fifty stores opened in eight other states, including Ohio, Indiana, and New York, and in England as well. The last free produce store closed its doors in 1867, two years after the abolition of American chattel slavery (figs. 1 and 2).2
Free produce was based on a new set of ideas about consumption. It was also a business. From harvesting raw materials, to producing, distributing, and marketing goods, free produce entrepreneurs sought to develop alternatives to an economy that, even in the Northern United States, was thoroughly intertwined with the system of slave labor. Many abolitionists, attracted to this bold entrepreneurial vision, became supporters, consumers, and even investors in free labor enterprises, especially in the late 1830s and early 1840s, the height of abolitionist unity. Benjamin Lundy, the editor of The Genius of Universal Emancipation, opened the first free produce store. The feminist Quaker Lucretia Mott and her husband, James, ran a free produce store in Philadelphia. David Lee Child, the husband of the famous writer Lydia Marie Child, traveled to France in 1837 to study sugar beet production in the hopes of finding a free labor alternative to the Louisianan and Cuban cane fields. The poet John Greenleaf Whittier edited The Non-Slaveholder, the most important free produce journal. Many well-known black abolitionists...