This essay examines the anti-chain store movement of the 1920s and 1930s in order to contribute to debates about the origins and nature of modern US consumer politics. It argues that this movement of independent merchants and their followers is best understood as an expression of populist antimonopolism. Opponents of the chains saw themselves as speaking for ‘the people’ and were virulently hostile to large aggregations of economic and political power. Concerned about the likely impact of chain stores on their communities, merchants lobbied their trade associations, wrote to their congressmen, and launched local grassroots campaigns. They also worked through the courts, securing anti-chain tax legislation in most states, and attracting the support of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis.
The essay has a comparative dimension, comparing the anti-chain crusades of the 1920s and 1930s with the protests against ‘big-box’ retail which have proliferated in the US and elsewhere since the 1980s. Reflecting on the recurrence in the age of globalization of a form of protest historians once thought dead, the essay questions the assumption—deep-rooted in US historiography—that antimonopoly ceased to be a significant feature of the US politics of reform after the New Deal. Accordingly the final part of the essay traces connections between pre-New Deal anti-chain campaigners and post-New Deal consumer activists, noting the centrality of antimonopoly to the careers of leading consumer politicians of the post-war era, Estes Kefauver and Ralph Nader. Arguing that the anti-chain store movement of the 1920s and 1930s was constitutive of the modern US politics of consumption, the study concludes by considering the implications of the persistence of the antimonopoly tradition for current and future scholarship. It suggests that the study of the politics of consumption is still in its infancy, and that given the important role antimonopoly thought has played in the US politics of reform, the temptation to dismiss out of hand as necessarily futile and reactionary anti-chain store movements past and present should be resisted.