Early Origins of the Conscious Consumer? The Free Produce Movement of the 1800s

free labor store

A Free Labor Store, in Mt. Pleasant, Jefferson County, Ohio, circa 1850.

If one considers the early origins of the conscious consumer, they should look towards the Free Produce Movement of the 1800s. 300 years ago, Benjamin Lay became the first Quaker on record to abstain from slave-made goods, refusing to eat food harvested by slaves and wearing clothing he spun himself. From the early 1800s to the 1850s, many abolitionist Quakers advocated for what eventually came to be known as “free produce,” goods produced by paid labor instead of slaves.

Though the movement faced obstacles, it introduced into the abolitionist movement a rhetoric that more directly implicated Northerners in perpetuating slavery and assisted in building the political will that led to Emancipation. Today, activists and non-profit organizations all over the world work to sever consumer support for exploitative working conditions that still include slavery.

free produce 2

This image was used on ceramics, cloth, silk purses, medallions, pin cushions, and other objects that were sold at fairs organized by women in the early 19th century to raise money for the abolitionist cause.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The majority of Free produce promoters lay in the Quaker community. One of the 19th century’s most well-known Quaker teachers, John Woolman, provided a foundation for the free produce movement through his troubled rumination on the use of products that exploited labor. In his journal from 1761-63, Woolman writes of the sympathy that arose in him for slavery because of his own experience with hard labor. Drawing the connection between labor conditions and his own consumption, he asks, “Do I in all my proceedings keep to that use of things which is agreeable to universal righteousness?”

The free produce movement of the 1800s, while owing its spiritual foundation to Woolman, added a political objective to moral abstention from slave-made goods: the abolition of slavery. In 1801, Thomas Branagan, a former sugar plantation owner, wrote “Slavery depends on the consumption of the produce of its labor for support. Refuse this produce and slavery must cease.”

east india sugar

The first free produce store was opened by Benjamin Lundy, the editor of The Genius of Universal Emancipation, and Michael Lamb in 1826. All together, ten stores opened in the 1830s, in Philadelphia, Boston and Lynn, MA. By 1845, five free produce stores had opened in Indiana. The most devoted free produce store owner was probably George W. Taylor who opened a store on Fifth and Cherry St. in Philadelphia in the early 1850s. Because he was receiving poor fabric and often not on time, he decided to build his own mill and reached out to Calvin Ellis Stowe, the husband of Harriet Beecher Stowe, for funding support.

The mill began operation in 1855, but was halted in the financial panic of 1857. Taylor finally closed the mill in 1862. He is recorded as having complained about the difficulty of keeping satisfactory goods in stock. “The serious loss to me and sad disappointment to all my customers resulting from the failure to furnish a supply of refined sugars – I fear [he added] many have gone back to walk no more with us.”

free produce

Bemjamin Lundy’s Free Produce store in Baltimore

From the beginning and throughout its life, the free produce movement struggled with a causation dilemma. It was easy at the beginning of the movement for abolitionists to grasp onto the logic of buying goods provided by free labor. The first volume of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator contained 19 mentions of free labor, one piece reading, “We are called upon to refuse those articles of luxury, which are obtained at an absolute and lavish waste of the blood of our fellow man.” But when it came to actually following through and buying free labor goods, people couldn’t be truly committed without reliable access to the goods. The store of George Taylor, the most optimistic of those working to ensure that free produce goods be available to those committed to buying them, lasted until 1862. The closing of Taylor’s store may effectively be called the end of the free produce movement.

free produce slavery

This cartoon from 1826 mocks the free produce movement

There is no record of the free produce movement having reached the point of making any financial impact on the slave economy. However, it cannot be said the movement made no contribution to its political objective of abolition. The free produce movement gave power to women, who did not have agency in the political sphere, to take action on behalf of their beliefs. Thus more women were brought directly to the cause than could have been without it, setting a tone for free labor within the domestic sphere and sometimes in shops. The presence of the free produce stores and goods also acted as a visual testimony to all who witnessed them. Free labor goods were tangible evidence, even if imperfect, that America could go on without slavery.