Pocketbook Politics

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Meg Jacobs. Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. xiv, 349 pp. $35.00, ISBN 0-691-08664-8.



Jacob traces the emergence of consumption "as the foundation of American civic identity" (2) from approximately the turn of the twentieth century until the 1970s. She argues that throughout this period, "the ‘purchasing power question’ of what people could afford remained on the political agenda, regardless of the state of the economy or the politics pursued by Congress or the president" (3). This was largely due to inclusiveness of consumer ideology across race, class, and gender lines. By emphasizing the importance of the state's role in shaping how consumerism ideology formed and strengthened, Jacobs seeks to expand on the existing studies that have largely focused on consumerism at the grassroots level.

Pocketbook Politics is divided into three parts. Part 1 discusses how inflation in the early decades of the twentieth century made purchasing power an important, and at times urgent, political issue. Part 2 examines how progressives used these notions of purchasing power to shape national reform policies during the Great Depression. Part 3 addresses wartime inflation, the patriotic appeals for fair prices, and the postwar inability to control inflation that contributed to the "downfall of labor liberalism" (10). Jacobs' attention to the state and grassroots levels is reflected in the kinds of sources she draws on: governmental records, popular magazines, advertisements, personal papers of people like Edward Filene, and shoppers' guides to products.


Kirk Johnson, Spring 2013

In the introduction, Jacobs argues that the periodization of 20th century labor and economic history into discrete periods such as the Progressive Era, the conservative 1920s, the New Deal, and so forth has masked another strand of continuity which spans the entire era--the concept of the citizen as consumer. Consumer politics turns out to be an area in which unexpected alliances and avenues for activism were possible.

The context for this begins with a simple fact--the late nineteenth century was a period of extended deflation, while the twentieth century brought extended--and sometimes rapid--inflation. This means that in the opening decades of the century, when other changes occured, they were experienced by people who'd grown up in a world in which prices went down if they changed at all. Some of these other changes included: the rise of a middle class of professionals who lived on fixed incomes (incomes which lost purchasing power as prices rose); the increasing nationalization of markets as consumers increasingly were forced to analyze products produced from afar, advertised with deceptive or at least uninformative means; and the steep increase in prices and shortages of goods due to World War I.

Jacobs finds that when you look at the history of this period through the "pocketbook politics" lens, there are surprising insights to be gained. In the first section of this book, prior to the Red Scare of 1919, it was not uncommon for middle-class consumers to find common ground with left-wing and working-class activists. This is striking not only because it flies in the fact of conventional wisdom, but because it underlines the shift from a vision of a republican society of independent producers to a democratic society of interdependent consumers. The American Federation of Labor was belatedly forced to forgoe its conservative, trade unionism to a more inclusive approach focusing on the new concept of a "living wage."

Labor's triumph during the New Deal years was due to a number of factors, but one important factor was the broadly based alliance with middle-class consumers united by a common interest in fighting for a standard of living. The end of wartime unity began to fracture this alliance, as did the fact that wage and COLA (cost of living allowance) gains made in unionized industries had a upward effect on all wages. This pressure of wages also drove up prices, which put wage earners at odds with salaried workers and led to a conflict of interest between former allies. The fact that labor's power was confined to the Northeast and upper Midwest meant that organized labor lacked the political clout to fight back once conservatives in Congress were able to appeal to growing anti-union sentiment.

With the end of the World War, the rise of anti-communism, and the fall of labor in the wake of the 1920-21 depression, this early congruence of interests between working and middle-class consumers seemed to come to an end. But the idea of consumer politics was here to stay, only now it was reinvented as a movement among activists for increased health and safety standards. Organized labors stayed out of those fights, which finalized the split in the old consumer alliance.

Celeste Sharpe, Spring 2013

Jacobs does a strong job recasting the narratives of consumerism, gender, labor, and economic expansion through her focus on "pocketbook politics" as a unifying trend and theme. Thus, she is able to juxtapose the opening of Filene's Basement with the labor strike at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and the furious debates over price maintenance in a way that enriches understanding of each issue.

Pocketbook Politics is full of rich examples of how this attention to low prices/high wages played out when challenged, like several food riots in New York City in response to raised prices where women overturned carts in their anger. The mantra of "high wages and low prices" served as a rallying call across interest and demographic lines. The Food Administration, as run by Herbert Hoover, and its choice to effectively deputize women as quality inspectors is another rich example that Jacobs uses to show how the state sought to frame and control this consumer culture. Not to be left behind, organized labor scrambled in 1925 to shift its campaign to encompass the idea that higher wages increased consumer power to appeal to the broadest constituency possible (82).

In discussing New Deal era consumer politics, Jacobs hits the expected topics and organizations (AAA, NRA, Wagner Act) but does little to draw on the full spectrum of programs and initiatives tried.

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