The Stores of Protective Unions and Workingmen

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Josiah Warren

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"The Stores of Protective Unions and Workingmen." Merchants' Magazine and Commercial Review. XXXV, I (July, 1856) 133-134.


The failure of the Boston House of Equity, an establishment designed, we believe, to supply workingmen and persons of limited or small means, has elicited from the Herald of that city, some sensible remarks on the subject. The success of the plan, and we have taken some pains to inquire into its working, does not appear to be very encouraging, and we are inclined to think that, with few exceptions, the class of parsons benefited by these institutions, is comparatively small, and that they would fair quite as well by the ordinary system of trade, with the wholesome compaction necessarily growing out of individual enterprise. The Herald, it should be understood, is ahead in its circulation of the Boston journals, and goes among the people who patronize Protective Unions. The Herald remarks:—

Among the vast number of stores opened in various sections of our country under the names of "Protective Unions," there are very few successful. Their difficulties arise mainly from the want of a knowledge of human nature on the part of those who originate such stores. Trade is as much an art as any artisanship whatever. To know how to buy to advantage, requires great skill in the knowledge of markets, and a steady and constant exercise of supervision. This cannot be expected in those who have not been brought up in a practical knowledge of business.
And, moreover, when the workingmen and other classes attempt to organize for the purpose of buying their own articles of consumption more cheaply than such can be purchased of our regular traders, they are to apt to place their stores under the control of some one of their number, who has no other qualification than his loud talk about the manner in which the traders may be circumvented, and the company may be supplied with goods vastly cheaper than such goods can be obtained of the regular traders. Such vociferations are seldom or never qualified to remedy the evils upon which they descant. They are generally men, who never having made a dollar themselves, are wholly unfit to be intrusted with the property of others. And yet, such are placed in the charge of the kind of property we have mentioned, because their boasting of what may be done, has given them favor among credulous people.
There is no doubt that much might be done by a proper organization to reduce the prices of any of the great staples of life, by proper association for the purchase. Take flour and coal, for example. From fifty to an hundred families might join and order one or more cargoes of these articles at a proper season of the year. But such orders should be given by and through some shrewd and responsible commission merchant, who knows of whom to purchase the best article and at the lowest price. And besides, the company thus purchasing should require every member thereof to pay cash down on the arrival of the articles for such portion thereof as he takes. No deviation from this rule should be allowed ou any pretext
Many of our friends consider the trader to be one who makes money out of the community without rendering any equivalent. This is an entire mistake. There is not a successful trader among us who does not undergo more trouble and worriment of mind than any successful artisan. And the proportion of merchants who finally succeed in their business is not equal to that of the mechanics who succeed in artisanship. General Dearborn, many years ago, demonstrated that but a very small percentage of our traders pass through their commercial life without at some period of their career, failing in business, and though an attempt has been made, recently, to controvert the General's position, by saying that of over an hundred signers to a manifesto respecting country bank bills, which was executed in 1808, about half of these signers were successful, this reply is inconclusive, because we are not told how many of that, half had sometime in the course of their lives. And further for such a purpose as that manifesto was made, the very ablest and wealthiest of the merchants would be taken, and such are not a criterion of the whole class.
If, then, but a very few of our traders who are brought up to the business, succeed, how is it possible that raw hands placed over the charge of "Protective Union" stores can manage the concerns of the companies which own them, without final bankruptcy to such companies? It would be much more beneficial if those who carry out the protective union system would employ some one who had been brought up in trade to manage their concerns—one who not only understood business himself, but who would select assistants who understood theirs. In such a case the protective union operations might effect the desired end, which they never can do under their present management.
The poorer classes are not blamable when they make efforts to get the necessaries of life at the lowest possible prices. Having email means, and buying in very small quantities, they necessarily get articles which are poor in quality, very frequently short weight, and they generally have to pay mi enhanced price, because of the small lot which they purchase at a time. It is natural that they should seek to make their small earnings go as far as possible, and that when they are dissatisfied with the extortions practiced too generally upon the poor, they should endeavor by a joining of purses to get their articles in larger quantities and cheaper. But such combinations are not always successful, and mainly for the reason that they do not intrust their funds with the right persons.

  • “The Stores of Protective Unions and Workingmen,” Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Review 35, no. 1 (July 1856): 133-134.