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Buying Power

A History of Consumer Activism in America

Buying Power

A History of Consumer Activism in America

A definitive history of consumer activism, Buying Power traces the lineage of this political tradition back to our nation’s founding, revealing that Americans used purchasing power to support causes and punish enemies long before the word boycott even entered our lexicon. Taking the Boston Tea Party as his starting point, Lawrence Glickman argues that the rejection of British imports by revolutionary patriots inaugurated a continuous series of consumer boycotts, campaigns for safe and ethical consumption, and efforts to make goods more broadly accessible. He explores abolitionist-led efforts to eschew slave-made goods, African American consumer campaigns against Jim Crow, a 1930s refusal of silk from fascist Japan, and emerging contemporary movements like slow food. Uncovering previously unknown episodes and analyzing famous events from a fresh perspective, Glickman illuminates moments when consumer activism intersected with political and civil rights movements. He also sheds new light on activists’ relationship with the consumer movement, which gave rise to lobbies like the National Consumers League and Consumers Union as well as ill-fated legislation to create a federal Consumer Protection Agency.

424 pages | 35 halftones, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2009

History: American History, History of Ideas

Political Science: Political Behavior and Public Opinion

Sociology: Social Change, Social Movements, Political Sociology


“In this major, learned, and ambitious book, Lawrence Glickman weaves together social, cultural, and intellectual history to show how consumer activism has, since the mid-eighteenth century, waxed and waned but never disappeared. Glickman has an incomparable grasp of the entire sweep of the history of consumer society, and Buying Power is the most influential, wide-ranging, nuanced, provocative, original, and commanding book on the subject in recent memory. It will shape discussions of American political and social history for years to come.”

Daniel Horowitz, author of The Anxieties of Affluence

“Between the American revolutionary patriots’ defiant boycott of British tea and today’s pressuring of retailers to sell only fair trade coffee, there lies a long, fascinating, and important history of consumer activism in the United States. Lawrence Glickman marvelously illuminates how Americans time and again have used their purchasing power not for self-indulgence but rather to prove themselves ethical, politically responsible citizens. This book demonstrates that ‘we are what we buy,’ and there is much to make us proud in the history of what Americans bought and what we refused to buy.”

Lizabeth Cohen, author of A Consumers’ Republic

“Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s many of us have been proud to be consumer activists, some in pursuing more serious government regulation; others in mobilizing boycotts and other citizen action. Yet we were never quite convinced that we were part of a great, historic citizen movement such as the labor, civil rights, or peace movements. In one gigantic historic sweep, Lawrence Glickman successfully puts these doubts to rest. Though largely unaware, we were tributaries of a stream of consumer action dating back to the origins of our republic and constantly renewed ever since. More than timely, Glickman’s all-encompassing narrative can now help guide and channel exploding consumer outrage into focused consumer power, from boycotts to demands on legislators to regenerate appropriate governmental constraints and accountability for consumer abuses in and affecting the marketplace.”

Michael Pertschuk, former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission and cofounder of the Advocacy Institute

“Challenging the common association of shopping with materialism and individualism, Buying Power offers a lively, comprehensive, and fresh history of the consumer as citizen. Glickman deftly leads the reader from the revolutionary-era embargo of British tea to the bus boycotts to combat segregation, showing how Americans have used consumer power politically and how consumer activism relates to the modern interest group politics of the consumer movement. This is a timely book that deserves a wide audience.”

Gary Cross, author of An All Consuming Century

Table of Contents



Introduction: An American Political Tradition

Part I: The Birth of Consumer Activism

1 The American Revolution Considered as a Consumer Movement

2 Buy for the Sake of the Slave

3 Rebel Consumerism

4 Travels of the Boycott: What’s in a Name?

Part II: The Birth of the Consumer Movement

5 Remaking Consumer Activism in the Progressive Era

6 The Strike in the Temple of Consumption

7 “Make Lisle the Style”

Part III: Advocates and Activists: Consumer Activism since World War II

8 Putting the Postwar “Consumer Movement” in Its Place

9 The Rise and Fall of the Consumer Protection Agency: The Origins of American AntiAntiliberalism, 1959–1978

Epilogue: Consumer Activism Comes Full Circle: The Revival of Consumer Activism in Contemporary America




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