Abstract: The Fair Trade Experiment in California: Edna Gleason and the Druggists' Campaign, 1929-1933

Laura D. Phillips


An unlikely leader in the California fair trade movement, Edna Gleason, known as the "Mother of Fair Trade," exemplified the dual appeal of woman as citizen-consumer and business person as protector of the public interest. A self-taught pharmacist and entrepreneur, Gleason led first local, then regional, and finally national efforts to protect retail proprietors from aggressive price-cutting by chain store competitors. For Gleason and her fellow trade association members, fair trade entailed association management of trade practices, including service guarantees, quality controls, cost accounting methods, and price scheduling between manufacturer and retailer. She spearheaded the California campaign for fair trade legislation that exempted proprietors from antitrust prosecution when contractually seeking these goals. Ultimately, the California fair trade movement exercised a decisive influence on the national political economy. As it succeeded in protecting proprietary capitalists and stabilizing retail prices in the drug industry, similar goals pursued by the National Recovery Administration were axed by the Supreme Court, making room for new legislation to stabilize the economy. While the conventional history of trade association regulation dismisses these efforts as rent-seeking or doomed to collective action failure, this paper recovers a viable alternative vision of American capitalism.