Portrait of America: Survey Graphic in the ThirtiesHomeIntroductionEditor's NotesArticlesFurther Reading
Implementing the Consumer

Caroline F. Ware

February 1934

1 2 3 4 5

THE problem thus becomes one of making customary the accurate labeling of staple products according to such standards and grades of quality as may be suitable to the product and instructive to the purchaser. This means that the producer's technical knowledge must be translated for the consumer into classifications of quality on the basis of the use to which the object is to be put.

For some products, especially certain foods, standards and grades as a basis for quality labeling have been worked out and are in partial use. The US Department of Agriculture has established grades for eggs which enable the housewife to know whether or not the eggs which she buys will be firm, clear and well formed. If she asks consistently for graded eggs when she goes marketing, she will soon find her grocer carrying them. The careful purchaser can also buy graded meat and be sure that she will not find herself serving a tough and mysteriously shaped cut when she has paid the price of a tender one. Meat grades have been popular with both housewife and retail butcher, although some packers have discouraged retailers from carrying graded meat. Pressure from consumers can make the use of graded meat widespread. The housewife can also buy graded butter and know how much butter fat she is actually paying for, although butter grades are somewhat less satisfactory since different preservatives make a difference in the quality of butter.

The very richness of the Machine Age and its multiplicity of goods put the consumer at a great disadvantage. Quality labeling would help him get what he thinks he is getting.

The Department of Agriculture has also worked out quality grades for canned fruits and vegetables which are carried by some companies on the labels. A group of fruit and vegetable packers in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and another in Wisconsin have attempted to make the use of government gradcs on canned goods widespread. In Canada all fruit is packed according to five grades. Within each grade there is ample variety in flavor, but the firmness of the fruit, amount of liquid in the can and so on are uniform for each grade. Actually many American canned goods are packed according to the Department of Agriculture grades, for under the Federal Warehousing Act loans are made on the basis of the grade of stock. But out of some 4500 brands of canned corn or 1000 brands of canned peaches or salmon, a mere handful have the grade indicated on their labels. It is still possible, however, for an interested group of housewives to secure from the Department of Agriculture a grading sheet, to grade sample cans of different brands themselves, and then to inform their friends as to the result of their discoveries. So long as the same quality is maintained under a brand name, this device may be a useful one to implement groups of consumers.

CONSUMER pressure has been exerted to make the use of quality grades compulsory in the master canning code under the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. At the date of writing, the code had not gone through with such a provision in it, certain powerful interests having fought it because their brands, sold at first-grade prices, are actually second-grade products.

With respect to foods, much more has been done in working out standards of quality than with respect to industrial products. In approximately one half of the industries presenting codes under the NRA, no standard basis for quality labeling was found to be available. Standards for the goods which consumers buy at retail are as scarce as the proverbial hen's teeth. The work of the US Bureau of Standards has dealt chiefly with articles used in manufacture; steel beams, industrial chemicals, joints for brass pipes are typical. In the cases where it has established standards for consumer goods, these have involved chiefly setting uniform sizes for such things as underwear, men's shirts and children's blouses. Even in the setting up of these standard sizes, consumer wants have not always been well considered, for the standards have been based upon common trade practices rather than upon what was needed by consumers. No effort has been made to make the size standards for one article correspond to those for another. The same child may go to school dressed in a size six suit of underwear, a size eight dress and a size ten coat. In attempting to remedy this situation and to make all sizes fit the same child there are two possible procedures, one on the basis of consumers' needs, the other on the basis of industry's habits. Shall the standard for size six be based upon the usual size for a child of six or on the size most commonly labeled six in the trade? Shall an average sized six-year-old child be regularly fitted to eight-year-old garments because most so-called size eights on the market at the present time are actually designed to fit a six-year-old? Shall the size of baking tins be limited to the medium (most frequently purchased) size which does not fill the ordinary oven but is too large for two pans to go in at the same time? Shall silk stockings all conform to the 30-inch-length standard set by the Bureau of Standards or shall they take account of the needs of short and tall women? Even for the simplest of qualities, size, the problem of establishing standards which serve the consumer, upon which informative labels can be based is, thus, far from an easy one. When it comes to quality grading, the complexities are multiplied many times over. What steps are necessary to establish such grades?

Take children's shoes as an example of something for which a basis for quality labeling could well be developed. First, it must be established what qualities the consumer wants children's shoes to possess. Perhaps he wants to know how well the shoes will wear. He wants all parts to give out at once so that he will not find himself with frayed linings inside perfectly good uppers. He wants the shoes to be pliable and to contain no ridges to injure the child's feet. After these qualities have been agreed upon as desirable, comes the technical job of determining what grade of materials for soles, uppers, lining, stitching will wear the longest, the next longest and the shortest time.

On the basis of technical testing, the specifications can then be laid down for shoes of grades A, B, C. They can be drawn in one of two ways. Shoes A may be guaranteed to be made of the quality of leather, stitching, lining called for in specifications drawn on the assumption that grade A shoes used every day on city streets will last for one year; or shoes A may be directly guaranteed to withstand machine tests which would be the equivalent of one year's daily wear on city streets. What is important to the consumer is that grade A shoes are shoes guaranteed to wear at least such a length of time. Let us say that grade B will wear at least six months and grade C three months. Grade A, B, and C shoes can be of any style that is desired since style cannot be graded.

For the consumer to be adequately informed as to what he is buying, grades must have sensible and self-explanatory names. It is high time that he knew when he bought firstgrade products whether he was buying top grade or not. Without a sensible name for grades, labels which purport to inform the consumer may only mislead him. Mirrors, for instance, have been graded by the Bureau of Standards, but in such a way that most consumers may easily be misled, for the highest grade of mirror is not grade I but is grade AA. Below grade AA is grade A and actually the third grade is called grade I. Names for grades of canned fruit are confusing to the uninitiated. Although "fancy", "choice", and "standard" are consistently employed to designate first, second and third grades, it is anybody's guess as to whether he should pay more for "fancy" or "choice" grades.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003