Garment workers protest a boycott against Japanese silk, January 1938.
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Garment workers protest a boycott against Japanese silk, January 1938. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Throughout U.S. history, Americans have periodically been forced to reckon with the moral and political impact of the goods and services they buy. Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was one such moment.

Dan Cathy, the chief executive officer of the fast-food chicken franchise, caused an uproar recently when he said his company endorsed the “biblical definition of the family unit” in an interview. Supporters of same-sex marriage soon called for a boycott of the chain.

In response, the radio host and former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee organized a counter-boycott. On his Facebook page, Huckabee encouraged like-minded consumers to “affirm a business that operates on Christian principles” by “simply showing up and eating at Chick-fil-A.”

On Aug. 1, thousands of people flocked to the restaurants, many of them braving long lines and midsummer heat, to make a political statement. As a result, according to ABC news, Chick-fil-A had a “record-setting day” in terms of sales, although the company provided no figures.

Consumption is often treated by the news media as a private act, lacking political significance. But Americans across the ideological spectrum have a long history of linking spending with ethics.

Abolitionists, Anti-Fascists

The so-called free produce movement -- in which a small minority of abolitionists refused to buy goods produced by slaves -- was one of the first boycott campaigns in U.S. history. Beginning in 1826 and continuing through the start of the Civil War, free produce stores were established in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other anti-slavery hotbeds. Many of them advertised in national periodicals. By any measure, most of these stores were failures, garnering little customer support even from the most die-hard abolitionists. Yet in the long run, this failed movement of conscientious entrepreneurs helped convince many non-slaveholding Americans that they had a direct connection to the institution of slavery.

Similarly, in the 1930s the movement to boycott Nazi goods and Japanese silk raised consciousness about American connections to fascism. As one pamphlet produced by a silk-boycott organization charged, American women who bought silk stockings were in effect “killing babies” by lending material support to the Japanese war machine. Although the boycott movements had little direct economic impact, they encouraged Americans to think about the effect of their actions at the cash register and helped personalize evils taking place in distant countries.

But boycotts have also backfired. In 1886, the Knights of Labor, a pioneering union, called for a boycott of a New York City bakery owned by a woman named Esther Gray. Improbably, no boycott of the decade received as much publicity as this one, which dominated U.S. newspapers. The Knights of Labor had authorized a boycott of Gray’s non-union shop. They couldn’t have anticipated that their vigorous attempts to publicize the action would be dwarfed by negative accounts that appeared in the major metropolitan dailies of Albany, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, St. Louis, San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as in the papers of smaller towns and cities from Tombstone, Arizona, to Macon, Georgia.

Whereas proponents declared it “utterly impossible to get out of the reach of the boycott,” as the Atchison Daily Champion put it, “the case of Mrs. Gray, the brave little New York bakeress, shows that a person may be placed beyond the reach of the boycott by public sympathy.”

An organized show of support by anti-union members -- an anti-boycott -- showed consumer power deployed in defense of a boycotted business, “people going out of their way to patronize it in order to express their disapprobation of the boycotting method,” the Daily Champion wrote. As a Boston newspaper put it, “Mrs. Gray is making money by hundreds of dollars because of the proscription.”

Unintended Consequences

Indeed, boycotts often have unintended long-term consequences -- something the Chick-fil-A protesters would do well to remember. Fast-food franchises depend on a mass clientele, including chicken-eaters who don’t share the politics of Dan Cathy. Although it seems likely that some customers who previously ate at Chick-fil-A may not return now that the store has been politicized, we probably shouldn’t expect those who turned out for the one-day show of support to continue eating there often enough to make up for the potential lost business.

But beyond their commercial effect, boycotts, even losing ones, have a way of highlighting a cause. They connect individuals to larger political forces that otherwise feel abstract and distant. For Chick-fil-A, that means the broader question of gay rights. Huckabee’s consumer action could generate more debate about same-sex unions than a ballot initiative would have -- and far more direct reflection on individual responsibility and agency. The boycott and counter-boycott gave consumers a stark choice, and a clear connection between their actions and their beliefs.

Americans have been debating politics and morality via their purchases ever since the Boston Tea Party, and the Chick-fil-A episode shows that consumer politics aren’t just symbolic -- they’re as “real” as electoral politics, and with an even more tangible impact.

(Lawrence B. Glickman teaches American history at the University of South Carolina and is the author of “Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this post: Lawrence B. Glickman at glickman@mailbox.sc.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.