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  • Warriors for Lower PricesThe New Orleans Housewives' League and the Consumer Cooperative Movement, 1913–1921
  • Anne M. Gessler (bio)

During the 1914–1915 industrial depression, a harrowing food crisis gripped New Orleans and the nation. The Housewives' League, a local consumer advocacy group composed of white middle-and upper-class women, believed that President Woodrow Wilson's "call for the south to feed itself" could break the city's dependence on northern and western agriculture. However, the league decried retailers and wholesalers who monopolized regional produce distribution and artificially inflated food costs to the detriment of the family pocketbook. Avowing that an alliance between small farmers and women consumers would ameliorate the high cost of living, the Housewives' League, beginning in December 1915, opened several cooperative curb markets across the affluent Uptown New Orleans neighborhood so that Louisiana truck farmers could sell directly to female customers. The Housewives' League thus joined a host of consumer activist groups around the nation operating cooperatives as emergency food distributors for economically precarious families.1

Ultimately open four days a week, the New Orleans cooperative markets were sites of frenetic activity. Up to twenty-one produce carts jammed together on small plots of city land. Desperate for fresh and inexpensive produce, black, Chinese, and white customers arriving by [End Page 573] car, by streetcar, and on foot rushed the laden wagons "with upstretched arms eager for their bargains." Patrons carted away their finds "in wheelbarrows pushed by the small boys of the families, or in baby perambulators," and gloated over "[l]ettuce as big and solid as cabbage," "[e]xcellent sweet potatoes," "[t]he finest and tenderest spinach," and "turnips and mustard greens, and endive and shallots." League members "arose before daylight, in rain or shine, in cold or heat, and went to the various market places and sold … fresh country eggs," homemade breads and jellies, and crafts. Farmers praised the arrangement, citing profits far exceeding those at public markets.2

While the Housewives' League had yoked white women's cooperative enterprise to evolutionary socialism and social democratic thought since its founding in 1913, league president Inez MacMartin Meyers hailed these cooperative curb markets as a "revolution" in egalitarian food distribution. Reflecting the league's blend of socialist and reformist ideology, Meyers declared, "I think we are all socialistic, or will get there soon, the longer we find that we can't do the things we want to do."3 To that end, the league's cooperatives provided white middle-class women with money-saving and laborsaving strategies so that they could devote themselves more fully to achieving broader Progressive reforms and women's enfranchisement. League women emulated national consumer cooperative organizations whose member-owners joined retail associations to contract directly with agricultural producers and distributors, circumventing the corrupt wholesalers and retailers whom the public blamed for perennial food supply crises.4 Between 1913 and 1921, the Housewives' League rolled out several woman-run cooperatives—curbside produce stalls, World War I cooperative kitchens, and a grocery store—each of which connected rural producers to urban consumers. [End Page 574]

The history of the Housewives' League's cooperative projects deepens our understanding of how white southern progressive women's organizations operated in the 1910s and 1920s. Viewing the Housewives' League through the lens of the national cooperative movement positions New Orleans as a cosmopolitan site of intellectual foment, a swiftly modernizing city emboldened by the circulation of international goods, bodies, and political thought. An outgrowth of the nascent women's club and consumer rights movements sweeping the industrializing South, the Housewives' League, whose inner circle consisted of Jews, northerners, and immigrants, believed that New Orleanians should emulate the socialists and Progressives who were erecting egalitarian global economic and political structures rather than kowtowing to the insular planter aristocrats who controlled the city's social life and politics. Even as post–World War I Red Scare propaganda threatened to dismantle radical labor, feminist, and socialist advances, participating in the cooperative movement hardened league members' belief that unchecked capitalism disadvantaged ordinary women. As religious and cultural outsiders in white New Orleans, Housewives' League president Inez Meyers, cooperative committee chair Edna Egleston, and consumer advocate Ida Weis...


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