Consumers League of New Jersey

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The Consumers League of New Jersey was founded in 1900. In that era, children worked in factories, and many of the protections of modern life which we take for granted were nonexistent. Consumers League struggled for 35 years before its original agenda: safe food, safe working conditions, prohibitions on child labor, promotion of minimum wages laws, and union protections, was enacted into law as the New Deal. It is the oldest continuing state-wide consumer organization in the United States.

From the description of Consumers League of New Jersey papers, 1938-1982. (Plainview-Old Bethpage Public Library). WorldCat record id: 639948206

Background, Membership and Organizational Structure

The National Consumers' League, with its state and city affiliates, was founded in 1899 by Florence Kelley. Its founders believed that consumers should be aware of the conditions under which the goods they buy are produced. Its members crusaded against industrial practices and the exploitation of women and children. Initially, it operated through research, study, publicity and propaganda to educate the public, but soon began to campaign for legislative action. (1)

One of the most active of the state leagues was the Consumers League of New Jersey, founded in 1900 in East Orange. The Consumers League of New Jersey was a small organization of middle-class women who lived in the major cities and towns of northern New Jersey. These women believed that they had the responsibility of representing the interests of their working-class sisters, who did not have the resources to represent themselves. The organization never had a large number of members; the high point was 675 in 1922. (2) It was run by a volunteer Board, President (3) and ad-hoc committees based around important issues; the Executive Secretary, who was paid a small salary, ran the day-to-day operations of the organization. The influence of the League, however, was disproportionate to its modest size and structure.

Factory Investigations and Reform in the Retail Trade

During its early years, the Consumers League of New Jersey investigated the sanitary and working conditions in factories to see if they warranted the National Consumers' League label. (4) Another early campaign sought to improve working conditions in the retail industry. Beginning in 1901 and continuing until the First World War, the League held a massive publicity campaign to convince people to do their Christmas shopping early, in order to alleviate the hardships that clerks faced in the days leading up to Christmas. During this period the League also tried to convince people to shop early, particularly during the hot summer months, and pressured merchants to close by 5:00 p.m., allowing shop assistants to go home at a reasonable hour. When League members discovered shop assistants were not allowed to sit down, they sponsored a bill in the State Legislature requiring seats in stores, which was finally passed in 1911. (5)

Protective Legislation for Working Women and Minimum Wage Laws

During this early period, the League also investigated the conditions under which women factory workers were laboring. Partly in response to League pressure, Senator Walter Edge introduced a bill reducing the maximum hours for women workers in stores, bakeries, laundries and factories from twelve to ten per day. The bill was passed after a major publicity campaign by the League including a survey of physicians who concluded that the "long hours of toil menaced the health of the next generation." (6) During the First World War, League president Juliet Cushing investigated women's night work in the munitions industry and in the Passaic woolen mills: her findings revealed that women night workers felt themselves to be in danger, they were being paid less than men, and their children suffered from delinquency and undernourishment. The League campaigned for the Night Work Bill (1923) which prohibited women from working in factories, laundries and bakeries between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Nothing was done to enforce the law, however, so the League sponsored a penalty clause bill every year until one was passed in 1937. (7)

In their factory inspections, the members of the Consumers League also became aware of the low wages earned by women workers. In 1923, the League was asked by the Labor Department to survey the cost of living for women workers. They discovered that half of the women were making less than was needed to support themselves, let alone the families which many of them were helping to sustain. Based on this study, a bill was introduced in the State Legislature to establish a permanent Minimum Wage Commission. Progress on the bill was stalled, however, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared a Washington, D.C., minimum wage law unconstitutional. In response, the National Consumers' League drew up a Model State Law, which was adopted in New Jersey and for which the League began to actively campaign.

In 1933, the State Legislature passed a law for women and children in factories, stores, bakeries and laundries which provided for wage boards to set rates in specific industries based on the cost of living. Appropriations for the first wage board were only secured, under pressure from the League, in 1937. Helena Simmons, former President and Executive Secretary of the League, became chairman of the first board, the Laundry Board, which recommended increased wages and eliminated distinctions between white and African-American workers in the laundry industry. Simmons also administered a team of 300 housewives who conducted another cost of living survey (1938) which provided the basis for succeeding wage orders. The minimum wage was gradually extended to other industries, including restaurants, beauty shops, light manufacturing, outer wear, and cleaning and dyeing establishments. (8)

The League's support for limitations on hours and night work for women led to conflict with the National Woman's Party which had introduced an equal rights amendment to the federal constitution in the early 1920s. (9) The League feared that passage of the ERA would invalidate the protective legislation for which it had worked so hard. For instance, in 1922, Mrs. R.A. Irving of Haddonfield was asked to resign from the Executive Committee because of her public stand in favor of the National Woman's Party and the ERA. Although she defended herself, the other members insisted that she resign. (10) The League continued to support the hours and night work restrictions until they were repealed in 1968. (11)

The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (1938), which applied to both men and women, set minimum wages and maximum hours for workers in interstate commerce. In 1939, Consumers League, League of Women Voters of New Jersey, and other organizations supported a bill (which was defeated) to bring wages of men and women working in intrastate commerce in line with those covered by federal law. (12) In the 1950s, the League formed another inter-organization committee which again campaigned for a state wage and hour bill. At the same time, the League continued to support wage orders in individual industries and entered amicus curiae briefs in several cases when industries attempted to have the orders declared unconstitutional. The objective of a full coverage Wage and Hour Law was achieved in 1966. (13)

Industrial Home Work

The League was also concerned with the welfare of women who worked in the home. In 1905, League Executive Secretary Elizabeth Butler investigated home work being sent out by button factories in Newark and discovered that home workers were being paid less that women doing the same work in factories. Furthermore, licensing standards requiring the inspection of homes were not being enforced, so that some homes were becoming breeding grounds for disease. In fact, Butler herself died of tuberculosis which she contracted through her investigations. It was only in 1917, after the "powder puff scandal," where infantile paralysis was linked to homes where children were employed making powder puffs, that the Consumers League was able to have legislation introduced which required the regular inspection of homes by the Labor Department or local health officer. (14)

In the following years, the League continued to investigate abuses in industrial home work, maintaining a publicity campaign which included displaying items made by women and children home workers at women's clubs and meetings throughout the state. In 1941, years of pressure from the League finally led to the passage of a new bill which regulated wages, required the licensing of employers and home workers and prohibited children under 16 from working. (15)

Industrial Diseases and Workers' Compensation

In the 1920s, Consumers League of New Jersey entered a new area of concern: industrial health. In 1923-1924, Executive Secretary Katherine Wiley investigated lead poisoning among pottery workers in Trenton. (16) The League sponsored a silicosis bill in 1927, and, in 1929, investigated a case of mercury poisoning at a hat factory in Belleville. The most spectacular campaign in which the League was involved during this period was the fight to have radium necrosis recognized as a compensable disease under the Workmen's Compensation Act. During the First World War, young women at the U.S. Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey, were employed painting luminous dial watches with a radium material. Apparently, the women were directed to point up their brushes with their tongues, imbibing radioactive paint. After the war, it was discovered that these women were dying of anemia and a disease called radium necrosis which ate away their jawbones. (17) The initial investigation was made by Katherine Wiley, who was called in by the family of one of the women in 1924. (18) Radium necrosis was not, however, one of the nine compensable diseases recognized by the State Workmen's Compensation Board, so the victims had to go through the court system to receive damages. The League campaigned successfully to have radium necrosis added to the list in 1926, which was too late, however, to benefit women who had suffered from radium poisoning before the law was passed. The League aided them with their law suits until 1935, when all proceedings for damages against U.S. Radium were stopped. One of the last victims of radiation poisoning from the Orange plant died in 1969.

In 1944, Dr. Alice Hamilton, a Harvard professor and pioneer in industrial health, who had recently been elected chair of the National Consumers' League, urged the New Jersey League to lobby for a compensation bill covering all industrial diseases. In response, Consumers League of New Jersey established an inter-organization committee to lobby for such an act in the State Legislature. In 1947, Dorothy Burns, an employee of the Westinghouse Corporation, brought suit against her employer for beryllium poisoning; beryllium was used for coating fluorescent tubes. Although Burns died before the suit could be settled, the case proved a catalyst for the new bill, which was signed in 1949, making all industrial diseases compensable and extending the time during which workers could discover illness. There were still exceptions, however: the League fought against the exclusion of silicosis, asbestosis and occupational hernias, which was repealed by 1951. (19)

Child Labor Legislation

The Consumers League was also a leader in the campaign against child labor which culminated in the Child Labor Act of 1940. As early as 1902, Consumers League investigated children working in the glass industry in South Jersey and in the mills of the Passaic Valley textile region. At that time, the minimum age was twelve, which could be suspended if a family was poor. (20) The League's publicity campaign contributed to the passage of the 1904 Child Labor Law, and of legislation in 1911 which prohibited children from working in certain dangerous trades, the definition of which was expanded in 1914. (21) In 1930, the League sponsored a bill which extended the prohibition from working in "dangerous trades" to 16 and 17 year olds, which was eventually passed in 1933. The comprehensive Child Labor Law of 1940, which restricted hours, prohibited night work, and raised the age limit, was made possible through a large inter-organization committee chaired by Mary Dyckman of the Consumers League. After its passage, the League had to fight many attempts to weaken the law. (22)

Migrant Labor Reforms

The issue of child labor was closely tied to that of migrant labor, because, during the early part of the century, many children worked as migrant laborers on farms. Consumers League first addressed this issue in 1905, with the publication of Mina C. Ginger's "In Berry Field and Bog." (23) In 1927, the League sponsored a bill to prohibit the employment of children while school was in session. After the passage of the Child Labor Law in 1940, the League turned its attention to adult migrant labor. Many African-American families from the southern states were coming to New Jersey to work. A League investigation found appalling conditions in the potato-growing areas of central New Jersey. Along with church and civic organizations, the League formed the Inter-Organization Migrant Committee which prepared a brief on migrant conditions which was presented to Governor Edge in 1944. The brief described unsanitary conditions in some migrant camps: "In one place visitors stopped to speak to a woman preparing supper. She held a limp black piece of food in her hand. When she shook her hand, the black color proved to be a solid mass of flies on a piece of raw fish." (24) The brief helped lead to the Migrant Labor Act of 1945, which set up a Migrant Division of the Labor Department and created the Migrant Labor Board (the two public representatives on the Board were also members of the League Executive Committee until the 1950s) to regulate and investigate the use and treatment of migrants. The League continued to advocate and lobby for migrant workers well into the 1960s, as more foreign labor from Puerto Rico, Mexico and the British West Indies entered New Jersey.

Food Safety, Environmental Concerns and Consumer Credit

Although the Consumers League of New Jersey continued to fight to consolidate earlier legislative achievements, during the 1960s and 1970s its agenda shifted toward issues related to personal consumption and the environment, such as the inspection of food, the use of pesticides, pollution, consumer fraud, food additives, and packaging requirements, as well as a major campaign to protect consumers from extortionate credit schemes.

· Full disclosure of finance charges at the annual percentage rate · Reasonable interest rates · Abolition of wage assignments and a limit on wage garnishment · Establishment of a "cooling off" period on sales contracts by door to door salesmen · Abolition of the common doctrine of holder in due course which denied the right of the buyer or borrower to sue the seller if the installment contract had been sold to another person

George Peirce worked tirelessly, attending every session of the Legislature and constantly drafting and redrafting amendments and bills. With the help of sympathetic Governor Richard J. Hughes, all the objectives were achieved in a six year period (1964-1970). (25)

Activities in the 1970s and Beyond

In 1971, Consumers League of New Jersey organized the Consumer Education Foundation to conduct workshops, conferences and other educational programs in the field of consumer protection. Projects included the Consumer Consultant Training Program, which was designed to educate consumers to be aware of fraud and abuses. As well as sponsoring research projects and publications, the Foundation assembled and maintained a research library, named for League member Mary Cross, which was used by students at local colleges.

By the 1980s, the scope and activities of the Consumers League of New Jersey was shrinking. The Foundation was dissolved in 1980. The League itself suffered from a decline in membership, the aging of longtime members and financial problems. In addition, many of the League's functions had been gradually taken over by government agencies and other consumer groups. By 1997, it still published a quarterly newsletter and several pamphlets (including one giving a list of low interest credit cards) and occasionally testified before the State Legislature.

(1) Clarke A. Chambers, Seedtime of Reform: American Social Service and Social Action, 1918-1933 (Westport, CT: 1963), p. 4-6.

(2) Felice Gordon, After Winning: The Legacy of the New Jersey Suffragists, 1920-1947 (New Brunswick, NJ: 1986), p. 60.

(3) A list of the Consumers League of New Jersey's Presidents, with the dates of their service, is included as an appendix to this document.

(4) Consumers League of New Jersey, Fiftieth Anniversary Booklet , 1950.

(5) Susanna P. Zwemer, "History of Consumers League of New Jersey," unpublished manuscript, 1950.

(6) Fiftieth Anniversary Booklet .

(7) Zwemer, p. 7-8.

(8) Zwemer, p. 9-11.

(9) Gordon, p. 62.

(10) Minutes of the Executive Committee (June 2, 1922), Box 1, Folder 1.

(11) Box 8, Folder 8.

(12) Gordon, p. 144.

(13) Susanna P. Zwemer to Donald Sinclair (August 25, 1966).

(14) Zwemer, p. 12-14.

(15) Zwemer, p. 16.

(16) See Box 43, Folder 7.

(17) Zwemer, p. 26-27.

(18) Report of the Secretary (June 6, 1924), Box 7, Folder 9.

(19) Claudia Clark, "Glowing in the Dark: the Radium Dialpainters, the Consumers' League, and Industrial Health Reform in the United States, 1910-1935" (Rutgers University Ph.D. dissertation, 1991), p. 374-375. Subsequently published as Radium Girls (Chapel Hill, NC, 1997).

(20) Zwemer, p. 17.

(21) Philip Charles Newman, The Labor Legislation of New Jersey (Washington, D.C., 1943), p. 85.

(22) Zwemer, p. 19-20

(23) Reprinted in Lydio F. Tomasi, ed. The Italian in America: the Progressive View, 1891-1914 (New York, 1978), p. 271-277.

(24) Consumers League of New Jersey, Brief Concerning Labor Camps for Migrants in New Jersey, 1944.

(25) Susanna Peirce Zwemer, "Reminiscences of the Consumer Credit Committee."

From the guide to the Consumers League of New Jersey Records, 1896-1988, bulk 1908-1979, (Rutgers University Libraries. Special Collections and University Archives)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Federal Writers' Project. Women's archives, 1890-1953. New Jersey Historical Society Library
creatorOf Consumers League of New Jersey Records, 1896-1988, bulk 1908-1979 Rutgers Special Collections and University Archives
creatorOf Consumers League of New Jersey. Proposed uniform consumer credit code : Montclair, N.J., 1968. New Jersey State Library
referencedIn Hamilton, Alice, 1869-1970. Papers 1909-1965 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Consumers League of New Jersey. Consumers League of New Jersey papers, 1938-1982. Newark Public Library, Main Library
referencedIn Hamilton, Alice, 1869-1970. Papers, 1909-1987 (bulk: 1909-1965) Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Dyckman, Mary L. Papers, 1903-1982 (bulk 1940-1972). Rutgers University
referencedIn Dyckman, Mary Lang, 1886-1984. Mary L. Dyckman collection, 1925-1984. Newark Public Library, Main Library
referencedIn Guide to the Tamiment Library Newspapers, 1873-2014 Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith ALICE HAMILTON, 1869-1970 person
associatedWith Consumer Federation of America corporateBody
associatedWith Dyckman, Mary L. person
associatedWith Dyckman, Mary Lang, 1886-1984. person
associatedWith Federal Writers' Project. corporateBody
associatedWith Hamilton, Alice, 1869-1970. person
associatedWith Newark Public Library. New Jersey Reference Division corporateBody
associatedWith Tamiment Library. corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
New Jersey
Workers' compensation
Consumers' leagues
Consumer panels
Consumer protection
Minimum wage--Law and legislation
Consumer credit--law and legislation
Associations, institutions, etc
Consumer education
Consumer cooperatives
Child labor--Law and legislation
Migrant labor--Law and legislation
food adulteration and inspection

Corporate Body

Active 1938

Active 1982



Ark ID: w68m21z7

SNAC ID: 40757922