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Implementing the Consumer

Caroline F. Ware

February 1934

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Just as the sword and buckler go into the discard in modern warfare, so old-time rules of thumb are scant protection for individual consumers up against the great guns of organized production in a Machine Age. Buying standards at least afford trench-lines, and as this number of Survey Graphic goes on the press the issue is joined dramatically in the Food and Drugs Bill, in the master canning code and in the project put forward by the consumer agencies of the AAA and NRA to set up a Consumers' Standards Board. With adequate funds for basic testing it could push out salients of information and footing for consumers in the No Man's Land of the market.

A BUYER can beware only if he has some independent check on what the seller tells him. It is all right for a horse-trader to gloss over a horse's age when the horse stands there for any buyer to inspect his teeth. But the consumer cannot look at the teeth of a package of breakfast food, a bottle of mouthwash, a can of peas, or the multitude of synthetic materials that masquerade under misleading names. If the modern consumer is to be as good a bargainer as was his grandfather among his cronies at the village store, he must be told what he is buying, for in most cases he cannot find out for himself, while the seller has at his disposal the scientific means for knowing more about what he sells than was the case with respect to those with whom his grandfather dealt. Without accurate information supplied to him by the seller, the buyer is not an equal party to the bargain, but is almost wholly subject to the terms which the seller lays down.

The method which most nearly corresponds to that employed by an earlier generation to gauge quality, is to perform scientific tests. The greatest consumer in the country, the government of the United States, is not an unequal party to its bargains for it tests what it is buying. For every order which the government places, specifications as to quality are drawn and the order is tested to see whether these specifications have been met. With its laboratory facilities, it protects its consumer interest. It does not, for instance, accept a consignment of "part wool" blankets where the specifications call for 50 percent wool and the laboratory tests show 5 percent. In 1929 it was estimated that the government saved $100 million a year by using specifications and tests in its purchases. Other large buyers who can afford to lay down specifications and to test their purchases are also parties to a generally equal bargain. By setting standards for the desired quality, testing and pooling their buying, the Association of American Colleges estimated in 1929 that they were saving $100 for each hour of laboratory work.

ConsumersThe private consumer, buying many things in small quantities, cannot maintain the technical laboratory equipment which alone can determine the qualities of his purchases. These have become so numerous, so complicated, containing so frequently synthetic materials, and so packaged for selling that the chances for informing examination are practically nil. What our grandmothers could tell by the touch of their fingers, only the test in chemical and mechanical laboratories can now ascertain. An ordinary consumer cannot maintain the apparatus necessary to determine the percentage and quality of wool in a blanket or a suit. Even if he could, he would have to have other apparatus to determine the wearing quality of shoe leather or socks, the combustion properties of gasoline and so on indefinitely. Under the conditions of modern industry, the individual small consumer, operating under the old principle of "buyer beware," cannot protect himself from being duped.

To restore his equality of bargaining power, the consumer must turn from self-dependence to a demand that the seller share with him his knowledge of the product offered for sale. It is not the technical impossibility of knowing quality which keeps the consumer in ignorance. The producer is well informed, but he does not pass his knowledge on to the buyer. The US Bureau of Standards stated in 1930 that "in general, it may be said that the producers are experts in their own commodity field, but seldom is the consumer given the full benefit of this knowledge....Under present conditions this group knowledge is suppressed and the tendency is all too frequent to give the buyer merely what he asks for."


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003