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Pocketbook Politics

Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

Meg Jacobs
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Pocketbook Politics
    Book Description:

    "How much does it cost?" We think of this question as one that preoccupies the nation's shoppers, not its statesmen. But, asPocketbook Politicsdramatically shows, the twentieth-century American polity in fact developed in response to that very consumer concern.

    In this groundbreaking study, Meg Jacobs demonstrates how pocketbook politics provided the engine for American political conflict throughout the twentieth century. From Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon, national politics turned on public anger over the high cost of living.

    Beginning with the explosion of prices at the turn of the century, every strike, demonstration, and boycott was, in effect, a protest against rising prices and inadequate income. On one side, a reform coalition of ordinary Americans, mass retailers, and national politicians fought for laws and policies that promoted militant unionism, government price controls, and a Keynesian program of full employment. On the other, small businessmen fiercely resisted this low-price, high-wage agenda that threatened to bankrupt them.

    This book recaptures this dramatic struggle, beginning with the immigrant Jewish, Irish, and Italian women who flocked to Edward Filene's famous Boston bargain basement that opened in 1909 and ending with the Great Inflation of the 1970s.

    Pocketbook Politicsoffers a new interpretation of state power by integrating popular politics and elite policymaking. Unlike most social historians who focus exclusively on consumers at the grass-roots, Jacobs breaks new methodological ground by insisting on the centrality of national politics and the state in the nearly century-long fight to fulfill the American Dream of abundance.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4378-7
    Subjects: History, Economics, Marketing & Advertising

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction Economic Citizenship in the Twentieth Century
    (pp. 1-12)

    Wal-Mart is the biggest retailer in the world. Its trademark slogan, “Everyday Low Prices,” draws shoppers in search of good deals on everything from diapers and dishes to DVDs. With more sales than its top five competitors, Wal-Mart is hugely successful, but Sam Walton’s low-price strategy is hardly new. For over a century, mass retailers have used price appeal to win customers and steal market shares. In 1909, when Edward Filene’s famous Boston Bargain Basement opened, immigrant Jewish, Irish, and Italian women lined up around the block to buy a knockoff dress for seventy-five cents or a stylish hat for...


    • Chapter One From the Bargain Basement to the Bargaining Table, 1900–1917
      (pp. 15-52)

      On January 4, 1909, William Filene’s Sons and Company opened its Bargain Basement. Almost instantly, swarming crowds descended upon this underground discount store. On some mornings, before the store opened at nine o’clock, customers formed long lines around the corner in anticipation of particularly good sales. On a typical busy Saturday, seventy-six thousand shoppers passed through its doors. Once inside, people grabbed, pushed, and shoved. Amid this frenzy there was no time for dressing rooms. The basement sold all classes of goods, with well-to-do women buying two-hundred-dollar cloth coats alongside working girls paying five dollars for a frock. Within two...

    • Chapter Two Business without a Buyer, 1917–1930
      (pp. 53-92)

      Protests against the high cost of living came to a head during World War I. In February 1917, the progressive Republican senator William Borah of Idaho warned about the dangers of escalating costs and blamed monopolies for driving up food prices. From the floor of the Senate he cautioned, “The price of those things which enter into daily living, of everything which we wear and which we eat, has reached a point where it presents a national crisis.” Thousands of housewives from the Lower East Side had erupted in a mass demonstration against the high cost of food the same...


    • Chapter Three The New Deal and the Problem of Prices, 1930–1935
      (pp. 95-135)

      The Great Depression thrust the question of consumer purchasing power to the center of American politics and New Deal state-building. With millions unemployed and millions more working at reduced wages, newspapers, magazines, and political speeches were filled with reports of starvation, Hoovervilles, and misery. Liberal thinkers singled out “underconsumption” as a leading cause of the downward economic spiral. While thousands of factories stood idle, one-fifth of families did not have kitchen sinks, two-fifths did not have electric lights, and one-third did not own cars. Edward Filene expounded his view of how the country had fallen into its state of distress:...

    • Chapter Four The New Deal and the Problem of Wages, 1935–1940
      (pp. 136-176)

      Liberal New Dealers believed that labor was pivotal to the success of their consumer-oriented public policy. According to Senator Wagner, the purpose of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) had been to “spread adequate purchasing power among the masses of consumers and thus prime the pump of business.” Jobs and the total wage bill had risen since 1933. But profits had increased much more. With the NRA in shambles, the government had no mechanism or labor law to compel higher wages. Wagner warned that “failure to maintain a balance between wages and industrial returns” had short-circuited the recovery that started in...


    • Chapter Five The Consumer Goes to War, 1940–1946
      (pp. 179-220)

      The inflation of World War II threatened to disrupt the New Deal coalition. Wartime food shortages drove up farmers’ commodity prices just as a return to full employment gave unions an edge in negotiations for higher wages and more of a voice on the shop floor. Not satisfied with these gains, labor radicals staged a series of wildcat strikes that alienated much of the middle class. But even as wartime conditions exacerbated the tensions within the New Deal, the dramatic expansion of state power facilitated by the war also strengthened the alliance of labor and consumers in pursuit of more...

    • Chapter Six Pocketbook Politics in an Age of Inflation, 1946–1960
      (pp. 221-261)

      With the end of the war, all the earlier conflicts over the nation’s economy and social structure resurfaced and quickly assumed top place on the political agenda. The Office of Price Administration (OPA) had succeeded too well in conveying the image that inflation was an evil that could be controlled. Consumer groups were mobilized to defend their interests. They were joined by a trade-union movement that in five wartime years had grown from ten million to fifteen million people, representing 30 percent of the nonagricultural workforce. Like labor, organized consumers were now equipped and ready to protect their wartime gains....

  9. Epilogue Back to Bargain Hunting
    (pp. 262-265)

    Today’s mainstream American politics holds no place for a purchasing-power agenda. But for nearly sixty years, from World War I through the Nixon administration, the question of how much things cost fueled American liberalism. The driving desire to secure mass purchasing power put in place a set of institutions and public policies to promote high wages and low prices. Two iconic incidents in the postwar history of the waning New Deal reflected both the continuing influence of this economic policy and its obvious constraints. The first, in the spring of 1962, was the face-off between President Kennedy and U.S. Steel...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 266-326)
  11. Index
    (pp. 327-350)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 351-352)