Lawrence B. Glickman


On his book Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America

Cover Interview of October 26, 2009


In the late 1990s, I began to research a book on consumer activism in the twentieth century.  Several years into my research, I realized that I could not tell this story without showing what had come before.  Consumer activism in the years before 1900 turned out not to be merely prehistory to the “real” story of consumer activism but an essential part of it.

Although historians, especially T. H. Breen, had highlighted the importance of Revolutionary era consumer politics, very little work had been done on the nineteenth century.  For this reason, I most enjoyed researching the chapters of Buying Power that cover relatively unknown consumer campaigns—including those by abolitionists and Southern nationalists in the antebellum era, and by labor and African American activists in the postwar years.  These campaigns, I believe, helped invent the vocabulary and the underlying philosophy that continue to guide contemporary boycotters. The core principles of boycotting–such as the use of the modern sounding phrase “conscientious consumer” and the concept of long distance solidarity—were firmly in place by 1880, the year that the word “boycott” was coined. From page 117: Announcements of boycotts in a newspaper created by boycotting printers. (New York Boycotter, Nov 14, 1885, 3.)

Despite the importance of this nearly continuous history, one of the most striking characteristics of consumer activism is the lack of knowledge that boycotters generally have had about their predecessors.  I tried to understand why, compared with most other social movements, boycotters have tended so quickly to forget their history.  At the same time, although they may not have been able to name their forebears, boycotters have almost always drawn on the methods and philosophies of those who came before them.  I’m conflicted about whether this process of forgetting is part of what has accounted for the prevalence of boycotting.  Since most boycotts throughout U.S. history have failed to achieve their goals, perhaps those who remembered the past would have been disinclined to try a seemingly ineffective tactic.

Writing this book made me acutely aware not only of the genealogies of consumer activism and its rhetorics (both for and against) that continue to inform the consuming practices of the present but also of the artificial nature of our theoretical approaches, especially to the standard periodization of U. S. history that takes the Civil War to be the defining divide.

Defying the conventions of academic departments, the history of consumer activism was neither strictly antebellum nor postbellum; it was both.  I would like to see more work that traces concepts and practices over the course of our history.  Such works can shed new light both on the concept being traced, and can also, as I believe Buying Power does, provide a way to reframe U. S. history more generally.

© 2009 Lawrence Glickman