MEG JACOBS. Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. (Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America.) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. Pp. xii, 349. $35.00. Hardback. ISBN: 9780691130415.
In Pocketbook Politics, Meg Jacobs—Visiting Associate Professor in the Department of History at Columbia University, New York—attempts to rescue modern American consumerism studies from its popular association with cultural and social history while “reperiodizing [liberal, political] reform in the twentieth century.” Jacobs focuses on the socio-political history of “purchasing power” from the Progressive Era at the turn of the century to the Nixon administration of the 1970s. To Jacobs, “purchasing power” refers to the collective ability of working and middle-class Americans to purchase goods, and therefore become “economic citizens,” based upon existing relationships between prices and wages. Jacobs believes that understanding appeals to consumer purchasing power, or “pocketbook politics,” is necessary for re-evaluating the rise and fall of New Deal liberalism. In a sense, Pocketbook Politics tries to give a lost coalition of consumers, retailers, unionists, and labor activists credit for the liberal policies of the twentieth century that sought price and wage regulation in the face of severe inflation.
In the background of Pocketbook Politics is an historical shift away from nineteenth century modes of household and factory production to an early-twentieth century emphasis on capitalistic manufacturing and conspicuous consumption, epitomized by the rise of low-cost, yet high volume, department stores and their flocks of urban “bargain shoppers.” Jacobs attempts to show how this new class of consumers developed a collective consciousness that reached across political and social lines (though perhaps not racial or geographic lines, two variables largely ignored in Pocketbook Politics). Jacobs demonstrates unlikely unions during this so-called Golden Age of purchasing power reform. For example, one of these liberal unions existed between organizations of middle-class housewives like the National Consumers League or the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, business retailers like Edward Filene and his Boston Bargain Basement, and labor organizations like the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
The historical arc of this political alliance between merchants, labor, and consumers is the central focus of Jacobs’ book. She demonstrates how inflationary pressures continued uniting unlikely allies through WWI, the Great Depression and the New Deal, and WW II. Most importantly, she demonstrates how the lobbying of the alliance resulted in tangible federal programs—like the US Food Administration, the National War Labor Relations Board, the NRA’s Consumer Advisory Board, and the Wagner Act—designed to appease purchasing power advocates by raising wages or setting prices. Jacobs situates the Office of Price Administration as the apogee of pocketbook politics—“a popular government agency working in alliance with a coalition of labor, consumers, and social liberals that challenged the right of private industries to set their own prices and sell their items freely.” Nonetheless, the liberal alliance between labor and consumers collapsed abruptly during the postwar era, signifying the downward turn of Jacobs’ declension narrative and supposedly paving the way for a exploitative world of conservative politics, apathetic consumers, and anti-labor, low-wage, big-business organizations like Wal-Mart.
Meg Jacobs, Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 3.