Monday, August 24, 2009

Lawrence Glickman's "Buying Power"

Lawrence B. Glickman is professor of history at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Buying Power is atypical in a number of ways but it nonetheless illustrates the central thesis of the book. Two illustrations fill the top third of the page: one an advertisement from the Charleston Mercury in 1850 advertising luxury goods from New York and Philadelphia; the other an ad from South Carolina’s Yorkville Enquirer in late 1860 for a “Warm Secession Suit” manufactured in the “Southern Confederacy.” The text at the bottom third of the page discusses white Southern critiques of Northern materialism. “The licentious spirit of the North must be rebuked,” I quote one rabble rouser from the Barnwell district of South Carolina who was promoting Southern “non intercourse” with the North. The essence of this non intercourse movement, as I show in “Rebel Consumer,” the chapter of which p. 99 is a part, was a boycott of Northern goods that lasted from the 1820s through the onset of the Civil War. The non intercourse movement not only promoted a boycott of the North but encouraged Southern consumers to “buy Southern.”

Two things about the Southern non intercourse movement are significant for the broader argument of my book. First, one of the aims of my book is to show that consumer activism is not the exclusive province of the left. Throughout American history boycotts have been employed by groups across the political spectrum. Indeed, this chapter on Southern boycotts of the North is paired with a chapter on abolitionist boycotts of slave-made goods. Second, this movement illustrates a tension that punctuates the entire history of consumer activism, namely the seemingly contradictory simultaneous suspicion of consumption alongside the employment of consumerist tactics. The main goal of the white Southern boycotters of the North was to “rebuke” Northern materialism by stoking Southern consumerism.

The two advertisements on p. 99 illustrate other tensions. The ad for Northern luxury goods revealed that calls for the boycott were not universally heeded. The Mercury was the newspaper of the Southern firebrands and a leading advocate of the boycott. The fact that its pages were filled with such ads demonstrated that not all Southern consumers supported the boycott, which helps explain why this campaign, like most of the boycotts I examine in the book, failed to achieve their objectives.
Learn more about Buying Power at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue