Abstract: Honest Weights and Full Measures? or, Learning How to Cheat Customers in Antebellum America

Paul Erickson


This paper will examine practices of and discourses around urban retail shopkeeping in the antebellum United States, focusing on a set of texts that depicted shopkeepers and their clerks as fundamentally dishonest. In an era before fixed-price stores, established consumer brands, and product certification, shoppers were often at the mercy of retailers regarding the quality and pricing of the goods they bought. The proliferation of narratives that taught retailers how to disguise their dishonest business practices fed an attitude of suspicion on the part of consumers, who began to view increasingly anonymous retail transactions as unavoidably adversarial interactions. In these narratives, the customer was the enemy, not the reason a retail business existed, and to the customer, a salesperson was only a small step up from a pickpocket. But if these writings detailed the business practices that shopkeepers might use to deceive their unwitting clientele, they also offered consumers the tools to assert their own agency in commercial exchanges. This paper will shed light on the emergence of business practices that—whether actually employed or not—shaped an emerging assumed stance of <i>caveat emptor</i> in a world of economic activity where traditional connections of acquaintance and obligation between retailer and customer were being eroded.