BOYCOTTING is the organized refusal to purchase goods or services in protest of the policies of the firm or country that produces it. Boycotting has been a popular strategy since before the American Revolution and continues to be a significant tactic of resistance among groups at all points on the political spectrum.
Although the term "boycott" did not come into popular usage in the United States until about 1880, its tactics were in use as early as the mid-eighteenth century. Over the course of the 1760s and 1770s, groups like the Sons of Liberty oversaw a series of boycotts in which both merchants and individual consumers refused to purchase British-made goods. Patriots celebrated "homespun" cloth produced in the colonies from fiber produced in the colonies. These boycotts were successful on many levels, embarrassing Parliament, raising concerns among British and Loyalist merchants, and according to historian T. H. Breen, providing a basis for a common cultural identity and experience among the diverse group of colonists.
Americans continued to practice boycotts in the antebellum era, albeit on a smaller scale. Many abolitionist families made a point of avoiding goods that had been produced by the labor of enslaved people. Similarly, some Southerners boycotted northern-made goods in response to abolitionist efforts to inundate the south with anti-slavery tracts. These antebellum boycotts, however, seem to have been neither widespread nor terribly effective.
Boycotting became a tactic in the burgeoning labor movement of the late nineteenth century. The Knights of Labor (KOL), one of the largest unions of this era, made boycotting a central strategy. Terrence Powderly, the leader of the KOL, explicitly preferred boycotts to mass walkouts or strikes. Boycotts were also often an effective weapon. Unions used publicity, personal contact, and blacklists to prevent small businesses and shoppers from doing business with firms that purchased goods or services from nonunion or antilabor businesses. For example, New York City carpenters refused to use wood trim or nails that had been produced by nonunion labor. Judges in both criminal and civil cases often ruled that such "secondary" or "material" boycotts were illegal. By the first decades of the twentieth century, both the broad-based organizing strategy of unions like the KOL and the heavy reliance on secondary boycotts had all but disappeared.
Boycotts led by individuals frustrated with rising prices achieved prominence in the first decades of the twentieth century. In New York, Missouri, Massachusetts, and towns and cities across the country, local organizations publicly attacked retailers and suppliers for raising prices faster than wages had increased. Boycotters proved especially angry over rising costs of beef, for which they blamed collusion among beef processors. These protests became violent at times, with angry shoppers threatening to attack retailers, suppliers, and violators of the boycott. Women were particularly important in the neighborhood organizing strategies of these boycotts.
Individuals seeking social or political change organized the largest boycotts of the twentieth century. These boycotts achieved new prominence in the 1930s, a high-point of consumer activism. In 1933, Jewish Americans began a nine-year-long boycott of German-made products. Japan's 1931 and 1937 invasions of Manchuria spurred Chinese people and Chinese Americans to lead a boycott of Japanese goods. Chinese Americans won the support of many liberal groups and movie star celebrities. American imports of Japanese silk were 47 percent lower in the first six months of 1938 than they had been for the corresponding period a year earlier.
Finally, throughout the late 1920s and 1930s, African Americans across the country led "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaigns—boycotts of stores that refused either to hire or to promote African Americans. Begun in Chicago in 1929, these boycotts proved successful in New York, Cleveland, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and other cities. Pickets and reprisals against violators sometimes became violent, and businesses often sought relief through court injunctions. Nonetheless, protestors successfully won African Americans hundreds of jobs at a variety of chain and locally owned stores, even in the midst of the Great Depression.
African American boycotting in Montgomery, Alabama, launched the modern civil rights movement. African Americans had begun organized boycotts of segregated public school systems since before the civil war and had been protesting segregated public transportation as early as 1905. Companies were generally able to survive African Americans' refusal to ride in public streetcars. In 1955, however, seamstress and civil rights activist Rosa Parks challenged a bus driver in Montgomery who demanded that she move to the back of the bus. Her actions led to a yearlong near-total boycott of public transportation by African Americans. Instead of using public transportation, African Americans in Montgomery walked or car-pooled. Not only did activists cause steep losses to the local bus company, they mounted and won a court case forcing the city to desegregate public transportation. The Montgomery bus boycott catalyzed civil rights activism in other southern cities and brought movement leader Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence.
From the 1960s through the 1990s, boycotts brought attention to a variety of causes. The United Farm Workers, an organization of migrant workers, led a national boycott, first of particular California grape growers and then of all California table grapes from 1965 to 1970. Later boycotts of grapes and lettuce followed, though none were as effective at lowering sales or forcing concessions from growers. Many Americans also boycotted meat during the rapid rise in food prices of the early 1970s. In 1997, the Southern Baptist Convention announced a nationwide boycott of Disneyland, Disney World, and Disney subsidiaries in protest of what they termed Disney's "anti-family" and "anti-Christian" direction. The World Council of Churches, along with numerous liberal organizations, organized a boycott of Nestlé products in protest of Nestlé's refusal to stop extensive marketing of infant formula in impoverished third world nations. With the exception of the grape boycott, few of these boycotts have caused serious financial damage to firms, but most have resulted in embarrassment and some, as in the case of Nestlé, in occasional policy changes.
Neither the growth of multinational corporations, nor the changing political landscape, seem to have undermined the use of boycotts. Indeed, if anything, the growth of a consumer society has only made the boycott a more accessible and meaningful tactic for many Americans. Barring court injunctions, Americans continue to boycott as a method of registering their alarm and disapproval, particularly when governmental solutions are difficult to obtain.
Breen, T.H. "Narrative of Commercial Life: Consumption, Ideology, and Community on the Eve of the American Revolution." William and Mary Quarterly 50 (1993): 471–501.
Ernst, Daniel R. Lawyers Against Labor: From Individual Rights to Corporate Liberalism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Fink, Leon. Workingmen's Democracy: the Knights of Labor and American Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Frank, Dana. Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
Friedman, Monroe. Consumer Boycotts: Effecting Change through the Marketplace and the Media. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Hyman, Paula. "Immigrant Women and Consumer Protest: The New York City Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902." American Jewish History. 70 (1980): 91–105.
Meier, August, and Elliott M. Rudwick, "The Boycott Movement against Jim Crow Streetcars in the South, 1900–1906." Journal of American History 55 (1969): 756–775.