Consumers Union of the United States Emerges

After industrialization, buyers and sellers in the United States were no longer neighbors or acquaintances. Consumers Union arose to fill the need for tests, standards, and guarantees to protect all consumers.

Summary of Event

Before the Industrial Revolution, producers and purchasers of food, clothing, and other items were usually neighbors, friends, or even members of the same family. With the rise of factories, however, many common items were no longer produced locally. Instead, they were made by strangers, often in faraway places. The quality of these items varied greatly, and most familiar items such as soap, shirts, and wagon wheels began to be made by machine. The variety of available products increased, and each manufacturer made claims that might or might not prove to be true. The use of electricity brought many electrical appliances onto the market: lightbulbs, toasters, hair-curling devices, and more. [kw]Consumers Union of the United States Emerges (Jan.-Mar., 1936)
[kw]United States Emerges, Consumers Union of the (Jan.-Mar., 1936)
Consumers Union
Consumer protection
[g]United States;Jan.-Mar., 1936: Consumers Union of the United States Emerges[09100]
[c]Business and labor;Jan.-Mar., 1936: Consumers Union of the United States Emerges[09100]
[c]Government and politics;Jan.-Mar., 1936: Consumers Union of the United States Emerges[09100]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Jan.-Mar., 1936: Consumers Union of the United States Emerges[09100]
Kallet, Arthur
Warne, Colston
Palmer, Dewey
Schlink, Frederick John
Chase, Stuart

Consumers could try to judge the quality of a product before purchasing it in two ways: by brand name and by advertising. A brand name, such as Standard Oil, Armour Meat, or Heinz Soup, could be placed on a company’s products in hopes of guiding consumers to buy all a company’s products if they found that one of them was reliable. Even the most well-known brands, however, often were made under unsanitary conditions or with questionable or inferior ingredients. In many cases, there was no quality control to ensure that the products were not defective.

Advertising, then, became one of producers’ most important tools. Advertisers attempted to create a desire for a product in the public’s awareness by promising certain results from using it or by getting endorsements of the products from well-known people—movie stars for beauty products or doctors for medicines. Often these claims either were untrue or were unsupported by facts. Another problem was the lack of standardization of items. Not only was quality not guaranteed, but sizes, weights, and measures of items also varied, even with products made by the same manufacturer.

The attitude of many businesses about these problems was caveat emptor: “Let the buyer beware.” The responsibility was left with the buyer to purchase the right product; if a purchaser got a faulty product, it was not considered to be the producer’s problem. In 1927, a book titled Your Money’s Worth
Your Money’s Worth (Schlink and Chase)[Your Moneys Worth] became a best-seller within months after its appearance. The authors were Frederick John Schlink, an engineer, and Stuart Chase, an economist. The book pointed out some of the serious problems that consumers experienced as they tried to guess their way through the maze of products and advertising. Consumers were “so many Alices in the Wonderland of salesmanship.” Schlink and Chase pointed out practices of shortweighting, quackery, mislabeling, and uselessness of some products, naming specific products as examples. They proposed scientific research as the antidote and noted that the U.S. government had already begun to do testing and to set standards and specifications for some products.

In response to the hundreds of letters they received requesting information about products, Chase and Schlink began Consumers Research Consumers Research of New York City. Previously a neighborhood consumer club formed by Schlink in 1927, it had done its own home testing and produced a mimeographed list of products—“good values” versus products to avoid—called “Consumer’s Club Commodity List.” The mimeographed list evolved into the Consumers Research Bulletin. Consumers Research Bulletin (magazine) It took no financial support of any kind from producers or advertisers and was the first magazine to be established solely to test products for consumers’ benefit. Five years after it began, the bulletin had 42,000 subscribers, compared with 565 subscribers in 1927.

Schlink and Chase, with the help of other scientists and writers, published an array of pamphlets, books, and articles in addition to their bulletin. One of these, a book published in 1933 titled 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics, 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs (Kallet and Schlink)[One Hundred Million Guinea Pigs] was a tremendous success, and it inspired a wave of investigative writing about consumer-oriented topics. Schlink cowrote 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs with Arthur Kallet, a young engineer who was also on the board of Consumers Research.

Stuart Chase had left Consumers Research to pursue other interests, but Schlink remained at the helm with a staff of more than fifty and a large number of outside consultants. With the growth in size of the staff, there were differences of opinion about the direction the organization should take. This was especially true of decisions about spending. Should resources be used primarily for educating consumers, for political purposes, or for improving the testing program?

In May, 1933, the organization moved into a large stone building in Washington, New Jersey. In Washington, a small town about a hundred miles outside New York City, Schlink hoped to be able to expand his testing facilities. He was also drawn to the location because of the lower costs; he believed that people who were seriously interested in the consumer movement would come with him. In fact, however, only six of the seventy employees moved from New York to New Jersey with Schlink, and Schlink, his wife, and close friends became the majority on the board of directors. Schlink tried to stay in complete control of the organization. He had a difficult time working with anyone who held differing ideas about what Consumers Research should try to accomplish, and he fired many people who disagreed with him. He also believed that it was a privilege for employees to work for Consumers Research, and so he rejected their appeals for higher wages or shorter working hours. When three employees tried to form a labor union in order to improve working conditions, they were fired. Forty other employees then left their jobs in a show of support for their colleagues.

Although thousands of workers across the country were also on strike during that time, the strike at Consumers Research was particularly significant. Labor strikes;Consumers Research Consumers Research had a stated goal of upgrading the lives of consumers, and the irony of its own workers having to strike for better conditions was considered humorous by the popular press. Liberal leaders were concerned and offered to help the workers and management reach a compromise, but Schlink would accept no such offers. Instead, he used the same strikebreaking tactics used by the big corporations—legal injunctions, strikebreakers, and armed detectives. Consumers Research Bulletin’s fifty-five thousand subscribers were caught in the middle of the ruckus.

Arthur Kallet, who had coauthored 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs with Schlink, had been a rather inactive member of the Consumers Research board of directors. When the strike began, however, he resigned from the board and supported the workers. As 1935 wore on with no end to the strike in sight, he helped to keep the strikers together. The idea began growing among them to start a publication of their own in order to compete with Consumers Research Bulletin. The group planned to use its many contacts, financial and academic, with unions, researchers, and sympathetic Bulletin subscribers to help with its initial efforts. The new publication—Consumers Union Reports—would support the interests of both consumers and workers. The organization itself would be run collectively rather than by a management team.

By March, 1936, New York State had given Consumers Union of the United States its charter as a nonprofit organization. The first issue of Consumers Union Reports magazine was published in May of that year. Three years later, it was known simply as Consumer Reports
Consumer Reports (magazine)
Magazines;Consumer Reports and had gained a larger number of subscribers than Consumers Research Bulletin. The director of the new organization was Arthur Kallet. Dewey Palmer, formerly technical director of Consumers Research, became the technical supervisor. Colston Warne, a professor at Amherst College, was made president and served in that role for the next forty-four years.

Consumers Union staff members had been politically active: They participated in labor movement picketing, testified at government hearings, and had promotional drives for the poor. Product testing suffered, however, as a result of this focus. Ultimately, the board decided that testing should not be sacrificed, since the scientific rating program was at the foundation of Consumers Union’s existence. Thus, in December, 1939, a joint conference was arranged by Kallet and Warne between the members of Consumers Union and the Cambridge-Boston branch of the American Association of Scientific Workers (AASW) to gain support for Consumers Union among scientists. The conference resulted in AASW’s offering to provide advice and assistance not only to Consumers Union but also to consumer organizations in general.

In 1986, the year of its fiftieth anniversary, Consumers Union reported that it had helped many additional consumer organizations get started. These included the American Council on Consumer Interests, the Emergency Care Research Institute, the Washington Center for the Study of Services, the Consumer Federation of America, the Center for Auto Safety, the International Organization of Consumers Unions, and the British Consumers Association. In addition to aiding other consumer groups, Consumers Union directly affected the lives of many Americans by conducting research that led to reforms or legislation in the areas of fallout from nuclear testing, risks of smoking, and automobile safety. It also did pioneering research on air pollution’s cost to consumers, unhealthy additives and chemicals in foods, and pesticide dangers in the food chain. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, these became important issues for reforms.


When it began, Consumers Union was considered to be a pioneer in the consumer movement. Colston Warne later reported, “The idea of testing and appraising products by name constituted an overdue scientific mechanism designed to restore rationality to the marketplace.” This idea, he stated, was “nothing less than a social invention.” To the original four thousand members of Consumers Union, the organization was not only a guide to making better consumer decisions but was also “an approach to the choices and problems of our materialistic world,” as one charter member wrote fifty years later. Consumers Union’s reports helped to bring about improvements in specific products, such as certain electric fans that it reported in 1956 to have dangerously exposed blades. Poor sales of product brands that received bad ratings in Consumer Reports caused manufacturers to correct the products’ problems. On the other hand, a good product rating in Consumer Reports boosted an item’s sales. Volkswagen cars and Maytag washers both received superior ratings, and spokespeople credited the ratings for the products’ tremendous increases in sales.

The original goals of Consumers Union were to provide scientific information about products and to report on the labor conditions under which those products were produced; ultimately, Consumers Union sought to achieve a decent standard of living for all consumers. For the first several years, a discussion of labor issues was included in the product descriptions but not in the actual criteria for product ratings. As time went on, the labor analysis was dropped in favor of emphasis on objective scientific testing. Although Consumers Union did not pursue its second goal as aggressively as it did its first, the organization has carried on its strong tradition of providing reliable product information for consumers. Consumer Reports has over the years appealed for food stamps for the poor, demanded fairer tax laws, argued against harsh methods of debt collecting, pushed for national health insurance, and urged provision of “lifeline” banking services and utility rates. Consumers Union
Consumer protection

Further Reading

  • Bishop, James, Jr., and Henry W. Hubbard. Let the Seller Beware. Washington, D.C.: National Press, 1969. Lively and informative history of the consumer movement from the 1800’s to the 1960’s. Full of specific examples of consumer problems and the people who attacked them and, in many cases, eventually won legislation to correct them. An optimistic look at trends in the consumer movement. Includes index.
  • Cohen, Lizbeth. A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Excellent history of post-Depression American economics. Analysis of the postwar creation of suburbs highlights the difficulties and inequalities faced by women and African Americans as they encountered the opportunities and hurdles created by trends toward mass consumption.
  • Consumers Union. “Fifty Years Ago.” Consumer Reports 51 (January/February, 1986): 8-10, 76-79. On the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, Consumers Union included this two-part narrative in consecutive issues of Consumer Reports. A detailed summary of events leading to, and following, the founding of Consumers Union. Provides a summary of many of the organization’s activities and achievements up to 1986.
  • Leach, William R. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. New York: Vintage, 1994. Nominated for the National Book Award, this readable volume offers an overview of the ways in which manufacturers, banks, and religious and government leaders promoted the creation of a nation of consumers.
  • Nadel, Mark V. The Politics of Consumer Protection. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971. Looks at governmental policies relating to consumer protection and analyzes the reasons they developed. Includes historical information from the early twentieth century and discussions of Ralph Nader and other consumer advocates of the 1960’s. Contains tables, index, and extensive list of references.
  • Olson, Mancur. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965. This scholarly text looks at various types of groups and their interactions. Chapters on labor unions and pressure groups provide an overview of the history and role in society of unions and collective action groups, including the period during which Consumers Union began. Includes an index and footnotes.
  • Reid, Margaret G. Consumers and the Market. New York: F. S. Crofts, 1938. Work written at the approximate time of Consumers Union’s origin provides a fascinating summary of the problems then facing consumers in areas of labeling, quality, advertising, and price setting, with specific examples and historical references. Includes tables and index.
  • Ryan, Edward W. In the Words of Adam Smith: The First Consumer Advocate. Sun Lakes, Ariz.: Thomas Horton & Daughters, 1990. Easily read presentation of the ideas of Adam Smith, the “father of modern economics.” Consists mainly of passages from Smith’s treatise An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), with connecting and explanatory comments. Smith’s clear prose includes some of the earliest statements of consumer advocacy. Includes index and bibliography.
  • Silber, Norman Isaac. Test and Protest: The Influence of Consumers Union. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1983. Provides thorough coverage of the origin of Consumers Union and the conditions that led to its formation, in addition to coverage of specific Consumers Union research projects, their impacts, and the organization’s evolution over time. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.

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