Last week, while doing some research on abolitionism in one of our best historical newspaper databases, I came across some references to organizations called Free Produce Societies. As I had previously never come across these groups, I decided to do some further research. Free Produce Associations were formed in the early decades of the 19th century by radical abolitionists, generally Quakers and free blacks, who hoped to disengage themselves from participating in a culture they found to be both un-Christian and un-American. Through these societies they ran stores and markets in which they tried to pool their resources and their skills in order to offer for sale only products of free, i.e. not slave, labor. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a popular or respected activity and most of the time their very existence was looked upon with hostility by most of society. These groups tried to accomplish a nearly impossible task given how much America at the time relied on the enslaved populace for many of their consumer goods.
Right after I started reading about these associations, most notably the societies formed in Philadelphia, I read two back to back posts on the Hand-made blog which I found to be a pleasant reminder of historical continuity and of recurring movements in our nation’s record. I began to think about other times in United States history when individuals have gotten together to form an alternative to the mainstream marketplace, a place where an individual’s commitment to an ideal would not be compromised. Granted, the Free Produce Societies did not have an easy go of it considering the low opinion most people had of abolitionists during the 1840s, but they did try to make it work for quite a long time.
The database I mentioned earlier, The American Periodical Series, contains over 1,000 periodicals and newspapers and it includes two of the earliest and most radical abolitionist papers in the United States, Benjamin Lundy's The Genius of Universal Emancipation and William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator. Both of these papers are great for primary source research on abolitionism.