Organized Resistance Vol. 1

As protestors get creative with their continued attacks on Wal-Mart, it pays to look back in American history at protest campaigns with like-minded goals. Ben Price of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), has written eloquently on the anti-chain store campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s.

With Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward corporations trying to squeeze local merchants with their mail-order version of retailing, community reaction was visceral. People organized boycotts and catalogue burnings. Their outhouses were stocked with a new brand of illustrated toilet paper. The stigma of buying through the catalogues was so great that the Sears Roebuck Corporation promised its customers that all transactions would remain confidential and products would be shipped in unmarked packaging. The inside cover of the Sears Roebuck sales catalogue told buyers “As some of our customers, especially townspeople and business houses, request us to ship our goods in plain packages or boxes, leaving off our name and address, so that no one will know what they have bought or where the goods come from, we have decided to make every transaction strictly confidential.”
When chain store corporations came to town with their absentee ownership, money vacuums, uniformly inferior products, and low wages, democracy activists pressured newspapers not to sell advertising space to them. Community based merchant associations tried to force chains to sign minimum “fair-trade” price contracts and pressure manufacturers not to sell directly to the chains. Chain store opponents petitioned state legislators to use tax laws to block the chain stores, and to impose levies high enough to put them out of business. Like the people they represented, many state lawmakers joined the chain store opposition, believing it was their obligation to reflect majority will to govern over the institutions of commerce in their communities.
Independent radio stations and newspapers treated communities to diatribes against the chains, warning that they threatened to destroy a cornerstone of American democracy, the independent businessperson. William K. Henderson used his radio program, based in Shreveport, Louisiana, to lambaste the chains. He told his listeners:
“We have attempted to bring to light the ruinous and devastating effect of sending the profits of business out of our local communities to a common center, Wall Street. We have appealed to the fathers and mothers—who entertain the fond hope of their children becoming prosperous business leaders—to awaken to a realization of the dangers of the chain stores’ closing this door of opportunity. We have insisted that the payment of starvation wages such as the chain-store system fosters, must be eradicated. We have importuned those who labor to join in striking down the chain system in every form and character.”



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.