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The Roots of Consumer Protection in America

As far back as the Greek and Roman eras, "measure for measure" was a key operating principle in the marketplace, making weights and measures the earliest form of consumer protection.

A few centuries later, the new colony of Connecticut had this to say on the matter:

"It is ordered that there shall be a measure of each (plantation) brought to Hartford on the next particular Court and then there will be a settled course for a measure in each (plantation)."

March 8, 1637, Colonial records of Connecticut, 1636-1665, Vol. 1, p. 16

"That righteousness and justice may be maintained amongst us in our Commerce and dealings each with other, this Court orders that each county in this Colony, at their own proper charge, shall, within the space of six months, procure sufficient weights & measures for their county, approved and tried by the colonies standards at Hartford."

May 12, 1670, A Court of Elections held at Hartford, Colonial records of Connecticut, Vol. 1, p 118

As the 19th century came to a close, America‚Äôs economy was still fueled primarily by agriculture; the concept of "caveat emptor" (buyer beware) was the operative principle of the marketplace. The buyer assumed all the risk in a transaction which, in the case of impure foods or unsafe products, could result in illness or even death. For the most part, the snake oil salesman could peddle his wares with little consequence.

At the time, there were many attempts to secure control over food and drugs; most of these were involved imposing taxes and protecting American industry from imports.

In 1879, Congressman Hendrick B. Wright of Pennsylvania made the first push for national legislation governing adulteration and misbranding of food and drugs. From that date until the adoption of the Wiley Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, nearly 200 measures were introduced in Congress to protect the public. WHAT was being sold and HOW it was being sold were the problems of the day.

The theory behind a competitive market was that it would keep prices kept low and quality high. But over time, monopolies limited supplies and thereby set prices, eliminating competition in many areas. To address the problem, Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890.

Next:  The 1900s

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