Americans in the early republic struggled to adjust as traditional relations of exchange and autonomy were transformed by new realities of markets, wages and growing inequality.
For each citizen who thrived in these conditions there were many more who failed to adjust. Everyone responded differently. But few rose to the moment as brilliantly, or as idiosyncratically, as Josiah Warren.
Capitalism unconstrained showed itself in the boomtown of Cincinnati during the 1820s. Its population tripled to almost 30,000; steamboats and canals linked the raw resources of Ohio to northeastern cities, and a thriving meatpacking industry inspired the community’s nickname: “Porkopolis.”
On May 18, 1827, a new kind of mercantile establishment opened its doors, one run on revolutionary principles.
It was called the Time Store, and it stood at the corner of Fifth and Elm streets. A casual visitor would have noted little to differentiate it from any other shop in the city -- except, perhaps, for a peculiar clock with an extra dial hung conspicuously on the wall. But for the proprietor, Josiah Warren, and his acolytes, the business was nothing less than the manifestation of a philosophy “thoroughly responsive to every demand of exalted human aspiration after Social Order and Freedom and Harmony.”
An “inventive genius, a social philosopher, and a peaceful revolutionist,” Warren is considered by historians to have been the nation’s first anarchist. John Stuart Mill credited him with important breakthroughs in social theory and referred to him in his autobiography as “a remarkable American. Warren’s hands-on individualism combined the questing temper of a social reformer with a pioneer’s do-it-yourself gumption.
Born in Boston around 1798 to a family that had been prominent in the American Revolution, Warren moved as a young man to the frontier to pursue his fortune. When he arrived in Cincinnati, the settlement “was quite on the verge of civilization, with the vast unknown beyond.”
In 1821, he patented a lamp that burned lard (a byproduct readily available from local meatpackers), and was soon operating a factory to produce it. Warren was now one of the city’s largest real-estate owners, and en route to becoming a notable capitalist.
Then, in 1824, he heard a lecture by Robert Owen, a proponent of socialism and communal living. As a born tinkerer, Warren was spellbound by the vision of experimenting with society itself, and he dedicated himself to reform. When Owen established the utopian community of New Harmony, in Indiana, Warren was one of almost 1,000 colonists who rushed to participate. But the kind of majority rule he experienced there felt more like tyranny than liberation.
“Man seeks freedom,” Warren decreed, “as the magnet seeks the pole or water its level, and society can have no peace until every member is really free.” The 29-year-old returned to Cincinnati with a new project in mind.
Warren intended the Time Store to serve as a practical model of his ideal of “equitable commerce” -- the goal of which was the satisfaction of needs instead of accumulation of profits. Rather than imposing large markups on the goods for sale, he charged a small fee for shipping and then tallied his commission using a scheme of his own devising. The exact moment when a customer entered was noted on the store’s large clock. Warren calculated the amount of time he spent helping each of his patrons, and then he billed them in “labor notes” representing an equivalent amount in their own industry.
“The merchant used the simplest kind of currency,” the magazine Youth’s Companion explained. “He exchanged his labor for that of his customers. There were no profits in the ordinary sense of the term.”
After a week, Warren had earned less than $5 in bills and notes combined. But then customers began to realize the benefits of his system. Soon the receipts piled up:
“Due to Josiah Warren, on demand, two hours in blacksmith work. (Signed) Richard Harris.”
“Due to Josiah Warren, on demand, twenty minutes in needlework. (Signed) Amanda Bennett.”
Emblazoned with the motto, “Cost, Not Value, The Limit of Price,” the labor notes could be endorsed and circulated just like any other form of currency.
Since time was money for Warren’s customers, there was none of the usual haggling. Farmers were wont to race breathlessly into the premises, grab their necessary wares, call out, “I-want-a-barrel-of-your-mackerel-here-is-the-money-and-there-is-a-cent-for-your-time-you-need-not-come-out-I-know-where-they-are-good-bye,” and depart.
Rival merchants at first tried to put him out of business, but some ended up adopting his scheme. Popular curiosity led Warren to host lectures on his theories on Sunday evenings. “You and I may not live to see it,” a prominent wholesaler told Warren, “but the time will come when all the business of the world will be conducted on these principles.”
After two years, Warren settled accounts and closed his store. He considered the business to have been a success and was ready to move on to other ventures (including founding his own utopian colony, Modern Times, on Long Island). The end of the experiment found him “financially in the same position as at the beginning, but morally more than ever convinced of the beauties of Equity and the need of its realization.” Without Warren’s influence and inspiration the other merchants who had tried his methods soon returned to their profit-seeking ways.
But the success of the Time Store proved to Warren and his contemporaries that equitable commerce could thrive in the U.S. In the process, Warren launched a homegrown radical tradition -- one that valued personal freedom as the highest social goal -- that would last long after his death.
(Thai Jones is an assistant professor of history at the Bard College Master of Arts in Teaching Program. His most recent book is “More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York’s Year of Anarchy.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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