Boycotts: A Quick History Lesson

by Patrick Appel

Lawrence Glickman, Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, e-mails:

I've been following the thread on the "Whole Foods" boycott on "The Dish" and other sites. My just-published book, "Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America" (University of Chicago Press), which is an examination of boycotts from the American Revolution to the present, offers some historical perspective on some of the issues raised by this boycott. I examine the question of the efficacy of boycotts and argue that two kinds of boycotts are most likely to be successful: very local efforts and national campaigns whose goal is often to score political rather than economic points. (The UFW grape boycott would be a good example.) Aside from their efficacy, I believe that boycotts are an expression of what I call "long distance solidarity" and show that American citizens don't take consumption to be a private or apolitical zone.

I also examine the issue of counter-boycotts and show that, from the time the word boycott was coined in 1880, counter-boycotts were a common occurrence. For example, I tell the story of the boycott of one Esther Gray, who ran a bakery on the Upper West side of NYC. The Knights of Labor boycotted her shop in 1886 and this boycott drew national, mostly negative, attention. Newspapers around the country picked up the story of the "plucky" Mrs. Gray and Charles Crocker, the California RR magnate, sent $50 and a letter of support, which was widely reprinted.