Abstract: European and American Consumer Cooperatives in the 1930s

William R. Childs


For a short period during the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt considered using the national government to support the growth of consumer buying cooperatives. The findings of his commission, The Inquiry on Cooperatives in Europe (1937), and the response to it convinced him not to support cooperatives as a "yardstick" for private retailers to meet. This story presents an opportunity to begin to understand why consumer cooperatives did not emerge in the United States in the way they did in Europe. One finding is economic: Generally, the advanced development of chain stores and other distribution outlets in the United States accomplished many of the same goals as European cooperatives pursued. Small business, which had some influence in Democratic circles, feared the spread of cooperatives. Similarly, labor was less interested in cooperatives than was the case in Europe. Americans reflected some of the elements of European cooperatives, especially women's interest and leadership and consumer education programs, but did so within the broader political economy rather than through local cooperatives tied to regional and national associations, as was done in Europe. The paper attempts to tie in consumer cooperatives to the larger consumer economy that Alan Brinkley and Lizabeth Cohen have described.