Class Year





Beverly Gage


This essay examines the debate and backlash against bargain-hunting in the first two decades of the 20th century across the United States. Using newspaper coverage and advertisements, congressional testimony, and the writings and speeches of businessman Ed Filene, it provides an account of the social and political discussion surrounding the practice of bargain-hunting, which include tensions at various levels. It concludes that the debate surrounding bargain-hunting and bargain-hunters, the women who most often engaged in such practices, reflected the challenges of imagining the concept of the American consumer and grappling with the role and relationship of the consumer as a political unit and idea while American economic and political society was shifting to center this still-undefined consumer. Bargain-hunting, broadly conceived as the practice of looking for items sold at below manufacturer suggested retail price, often by large retailers, gained traction with the advent of mass production and the rise of large retailers and comparison shopping, and continued as a practice through both immediate and persistent social backlash and attempts at political responses. This essay examines the strands of both the social and political debates over bargain- hunting and bargain-hunters, arguing that attitudes towards bargain-hunting revealed conceptions of the consumer and its intended role in American society that were disparate, unpredictable, and fractured. It uses both social commentary and testimony from legislative hearings to demonstrate how bargain-hunting reflected the untethered and ongoing tensions Americans grappled with in imagining what the place, interest, and protection of consumers with respect to political identity and citizenship should look like in a consumer-centered world, even as that world was actively unfurling around them.

Open Access

This Article is Open Access