Stuart Chase Papers

The plans that Stuart Chase (1888-1985), economist, consumer activist and man of letters, laid out in 1928 in the Memorandum Establishing the Consumers Foundation . . . blossomed in the creation, in 1929, with Frederick John Schlink, of Consumers Research, Inc., the granddaddy of consumer-protection organizations. Schlink converted a small consumers club he was operating in a White Plains, New York garage into a testing organization for consumer products. In December of 1929, two months after the "crash" heralding the Great Depression, the organization began to publish its findings in the form of consumer pamphlets and a regular bulletin, which compared and assigned ratings to consumer products. An October 1931 issue of the Handbook of Buying, the only one preserved in the Chase Papers, provides a sample of what this serial looked like.

By 1930, membership in Consumers Research, Inc. had reached 12,000. Roland Marchand notes in Advertising the American Dream (1985) that "With the impetus of the depression, Consumers Research doubled its membership in 1931" (p. 314). Monte Florman's history, Testing: Behind the Scenes at Consumer Reports, 1936-1986 (1986), shows how the Consumers Research, Inc. organization became the forerunner of Consumers Union, created by Arthur Kallet in 1936, and the Handbook of Buying became the ancestor of the now-familiar Consumer Reports. Among the board of directors of the newly created Consumers Union was A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and editor of The Messenger: The World's Greatest Negro Monthly.

The establishment of the original organization, Consumers Research, Inc., followed the publication by Chase and Schlink of Your Money's Worth (1927), a controversial expose of false and misleading advertising and unreasonable pricing practices by manufacturers of consumer products. The work was distributed in quantity through the Book of the Month Club, and the enthusiasm of the public reception encouraged them to expand their initial "Consumers Club" in White Plain, New York into a national organization. Schlink, trained as a mechanical engineer and physicist, became president of Consumers' Research, Inc. and authored two additional exposes (neither of them in our collection): 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics (1933), with Arthur Kallet, then of Consumers' Research, Inc.; and Eat, Drink and Be Wary (1935).

Chase, in contrast, despite engineering training at M.I.T., in his subsequent writing explored commitments to a great range of interests, including semantics, economic theory, the history of technology, and comparative cultures (Mexico and the United States). Chase's typically lucid, easy-to understand style makes his study of the economics and labor side of the twenties, Prosperity: Fact or Myth? (1929), a pleasure to consult.

From 1922 to 1939 Chase was a director of the New York-based Labor Bureau, Inc., which furnished research, accounting and other professional services to labor unions and cooperatives, and published the newsletter Facts for Workers: A Monthly Review of Business, Industry and General Economic Conditions from the Point of View of Organized Labor. The serial offered an oblique critique of the consumer culture. However, none of the articles bears Chase's (or, for that matter, anyone else's) name.

Among Chase's papers is the Story of Toad Lane -- a Pamphlet About the Rochdale Plan and the Rise of the Consumer Cooperative Movement, printed by the Cooperative League circa 1926, which tells the story of 28 workers, weavers in Rochdale, England, who in 1844 pioneered the concept of the modern cooperative by selling to themselves four consumer staples: flour, butter, sugar and oatmeal. (DETAIL NOTE Cooperatives)

In addition, selections from the Chase Papers reproduced here include a charming exchange of letters, Theodore Dreiser and Stuart Chase Correspondence on the Subject of Consumer Purchasing Power and Corporate Profits, which also covers the subjects of millionaires, banks, big corporations and unemployment. A more general readership heard Chase's urbane and influential voice in the critiques of consumerism and advertising that he wrote for such journals of opinion as Forum, The Nation, and The Outlook. (INTRO NOTE Critiques)

Selections from the Manscript Division