This digital humanities project is in the process of cataloguing the history of the Free Labor Movement (sometimes also referred to as the Free Produce Movement) within the United States during the nineteenth-century. 

In describing her conversion to free produce, Frances Harper asked, “Oh, could slavery exist long if it did not sit on a commercial throne?”[1] As an early form of what we may now describe as consumer politics or the practice of “voting with your wallet”, this project proposes that current discussions about race, food justice, and ethical consumption benefit from examining this brief chapter of history. As a mass boycott of products made through the labor of enslaved people, free produce formed a definition of solidarity and complicity that extended to the clothes children wore and the food people had in their homes. Henry Miles writes in Frederick Douglass’ Newspaper:

Slavery cannot be legalized anywhere, neither in Congress nor out of Congress neither in the cotton-field nor out of the cotton-field neither in the cotton-mill nor on the counter of the store-keeper nor in anti-slavery bazaars nor on the tables nor backs of those who cry aloud, and “spare not,” when they are denouncing slavery in all its ramifications.[2]

For supporters of free produce, slavery did not only exist in the South or the Caribbean – it was on shelves in New York City, in the sweet cakes at bakeries, and in the cotton dresses at clothing stores. By rebuking the idea that slavery was restricted by state boundaries, these activists also emphasized the impossibility of any true neutrality for northerners. In essays, pamphlets, and articles, some advocates made no distinction at all between merchants, storekeepers, and enslavers. Free produce was a movement that many women, in particular, took part in because clothing material, food, and other similar products were domestic items. Maintaining one’s household, thus, became intricately linked with abolitionist practice. Harper, in an article also for Frederick Douglass’ Paper, describes these products in gothic terms – haunted and cursed by the evils of slavery:

[Slavery’s] influence surrounds us like the atmosphere; we gather around the social board, and one of the first things which meets our gaze, is some luxury wrung from the reluctant, trembling hands of the crushed and weary slave. We enter the wardrobe and the sighs and groans of the slave are lingering around the seams of our clothes, and floating amid the folds of our garments.[3] 

Though begun by Quakers, many more men and women in both the United States and Britain took up the cause’s adamant declaration that any purchase of these goods meant consenting to a union with enslavers.

This resource encourages further scholarship and general attention towards the free produce movement, its history, and literature. Additionally, examining the American chapters and organized efforts towards free produce illustrates their importance to later social change movements. While the movement was not the first to recognize political power in food or consumption, Michelle Craig McDonald states:

…free produce did help set a precedent which regularly reappears in subsequent U.S. movement to purposefully and systematically consider morality and economy. Moreover, it required that such considerations take social context into account. It was not the welfare of the individual that rang most strongly in free produce appeals, but the obligation of the one to the many.[4]

Similarly, Carol Faulkner argues that “far from being marginal”, free produce “helped provoke the first calls for immediate abolition by forcing reformers to confront the profound connection between northern consumers and slaves.”[5] By examining the models of labor and activism in this collective, we can better visualize what an everyday practice of abolition looked like for nineteenth-century individuals – the spaces they would frequent or the kinds of meals they would eat.

At the same time, there is a necessary skepticism we must maintain for free produce and its supporters, which faced many challenges that we will recognize today – the difficulty of access, a prioritization of moral feeling over impact in many people, and a troubling rhetoric which equated the very enslaved people they sought to emancipate with the objects they created. Teresa Goddu describes the industry and markets of abolition as filled with objects “[reaching] a consensus in their valorization of consumerism and its liberal subject along with antislavery […] they assert that moral capital can be increased through material ownership and that consumption is the most powerful form of freedom.”[6] It is hard not to find this rhetoric of sentimental commodification occasionally troubling. In creating a digital resource, I do not want to flatten these discourses, but highlight them. It is crucial to note that these discontents were ones shared by many nineteenth-century abolitionists. There was variation within the movement’s chapters and figures, their priorities, degree of investment, and goals. Harper’s letter on how Solomon Northrup’s 12 Years a Slave converted her to free produce compares the text to those of Harriet Beecher Stowe (another vocal supporter of the movement), appearing to implicitly critique the sentimentalism that so many of Stowe’s white readers had delighted in:

Oh, if Mrs. Stowe has clothed American slavery in the graceful garb of fiction, Solomon Northrup comes up from the dark habitation of Southern cruelty where slavery fattens and feasts on human blood with such mournful revelations that one might almost wish for the sake of humanity that the tales of horror which he reveals were not so.[7]

 By creating No Stain of Tears and Blood and curating the various dimensions of the free produce movement, I hope to demonstrate that there is much we can learn from the nineteenth century. The networks established by these activists and the ways they embedded the boycott into their own demands for immediate emancipate illustrate what it meant to find and create an active community. However, they also reveal a resonant and timely discussion of how racial justice requires that those oppressed are subjects rather than objects.

No Stain of Tears and Blood is a project by Charline Jao with the support of the Rural Humanities Initiative, housed by the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University.

Works Cited

[1] Michelle Craig McDonald, “Consuming with a Conscience: The Free Produce Movment in Early America” in Shopping for Change: Consumer Activism and the Possibilities of Purchasing Power ed. by Louis Hyman and Joseph Tohill (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017), 17-28 (p. 27).

[2] Carol Faulkner, “The Root of the Evil: Free Produce and Radical Antislavery, 1820-1860” in Journal of the Early Republic, 27:3 (2007), 337-405 (p. 379).

[3] Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, “Having read the narrative of Solomon Northrup” in The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narrative, Letters, &c. by William Still (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872), p. 759 <http://productsoffreelabor.com/items/show/71> [Accessed 9 May 2021].

[4] Henry Miles, “The Free Labor Movement” in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, April 20, 1855 <http://productsoffreelabor.com/items/show/21> [Accessed 9 May 2021].

[5] Harper, “The Free Labor Movement” in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, June 29, 1855 <http://productsoffreelabor.com/items/show/3> [Accessed 9 May 2021].

[6] Teresa Goddu, Selling Antislavery: Abolition and Mass Media in Antebellum America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), p. 93. All references are to this edition unless otherwise stated.

[6] Harper, “Having read the narrative of Solomon Northrup”, p. 759.