Good Blueberries and Good Goods

Recently, I made a purchase that I could feel good about. Meandering through the produce aisles at my neighborhood grocery store, navigating the piles of verbosely marketed fruits and veggies, I plucked out a package of enticingly ripe blueberries. “Taste Me/ Do Good,” it told me. If I tasted this brand of blueberries, I’d act a part in the greater good of fairly traded, responsibly grown produce. At the same time, eating them would allow me to taste the ways the blueberries themselves were doing some kind of good: “Taste me do good.” Really, it was the marketing around the product itself that told me how to feel about my consumption of it and by extension my and the product’s participation in a larger economy of ethically produced goods. This object, like so many others branded good or bad, exemplifies the described and the real implications consumer behavior has for labor practices, market conditions, and public opinion. The object, in other words, has a lot to say.

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And objects been speaking to us for a long time. Consumers in the nineteenth century experienced similar feelings of doing good by purchasing—or not purchasing—certain commodities aligned with unethical production practices. Slave-produced sugar, tobacco, and textiles were excoriated by antislavery activists. Alcohol, which contributed to growing incidents of domestic abuse and homelessness, was assiduously branded as a corrupt and corrupting influence on consumers. In one best-selling 1835 pamphlet, a frontispiece depicts beer barrels labeled “death,” “poverty,” “sickness,” and “grief,” in a brewery worked by tiny devils hidden from the public eye.[1] Reformers and authors cautioned against buying into a market that neither did them good nor did good and sometimes actively hid their practices from public view. Our current movement toward greater ingredient transparency and fair trade is really an extension of the rhetoric of consumption that grew out of nineteenth-century reform movements.

But it’s not just good goods that matter, it’s our cultural recognition of the fact that they existed and our cultural knowledge of the conditions which necessitated them that are equally important as we advance further into a new century characterized by not-so-new activist efforts.

Today, consumer resistance is the stuff of viral media, tweeted, retweeted, slapped with a hashtag and shared with virtual social networks. The immediacy lent to such movements by instant publication and dissemination as activist sentiments spread to personal and national networks may give the sense that consumer resistance is stronger and more common today than ever. Yet, as economic historian Lawrence B. Glickman reminds us, boycotts have never not been an integral part of American consumer behavior and political protest. It may actually be more appropriate to call it “an American tradition.”[1]

We’re part of that tradition when we shop with our conscience but we may not realize our own indebtedness to conscientious consumption movements of the past. My new digital public humanities project, Activist Artifacts, showcases the kinds of goods nineteenth-century reformers targeted in their work to create a better world. Organized around the objects associated with nineteenth-century reform efforts, the site allows the objects themselves to tell the story of consumer resistance and reform. Just as a handful of blueberries seeks to “do good,” the project seeks to do good by bringing awareness to a fascinating but overlooked part of American history, by making tools available to educators who share an appreciation for material culture, and by strengthening public understanding of the power that objects and print have in effecting change.

It’s part of our responsibility as consumers and citizens, especially if we want to “taste” “good” food and “do good” at the same time, to learn about the history and material culture of consumer reform. Because if we continue to insist on boycotting goods or companies that don’t do any demonstrable good or actively contribute to morally questionable enterprises–as we are increasingly emboldened and empowered to do–we ought to go into it understanding the history of modes and methods of consumer resistance. We can learn a lot from the objects that came before and the words activists used to describe them.

[1] Glickman, Lawrence B. Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America. Chicago UP, 2009: 3.

[1] Cheever, George B. “The Dream: or the True History of Deacon Giles’ Distillery.” 1835. Thomas Hamilton, 1859.

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