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Historian wins prize for 'Pocketbook Politics'

The Boston bargain-hunter's landmark store, Filene's Basement, plays a starring role in a new book on mass consumption and purchasing power written by Meg Jacobs, an associate professor of history at MIT.

Jacobs' book, "Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America," shows how the individual shopper's eternal question -- "How much does it cost?" -- and public anger over the high cost of living have fueled and frustrated administrations from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon.

"Pocketbook Politics" has just been awarded the 2006 Ellis Hawley Prize, signaling recognition by the Organization of American Historians as the year's "best book-length study of the political economy, politics or institutions of the U.S."

It opens with the doors of the Basement -- then known as "Filene's Folly" -- in 1909.

Edward Filene, a maverick businessman, "believed that the way to make money was to increase the public's purchasing power. He knew there were markets out there and that people would buy wool suits in July if the price were right," Jacobs said.

Those off-season wool suits made Filene a rich man. But, Jacobs noted, Filene saw his own wealth in the context of the wealth of the nation. "He believed that purchasing power, coming not only from lower prices, but also from higher wages, was necessary for sustaining capitalism. Each person's ability to consume was linked to the national welfare," she said.

"Pocketbook Politics" shows how such an understanding of national welfare led to support for union organizing, collective bargaining, government price controls and a goal of full employment during the 1930s era of the Great Depression and Roosevelt's New Deal economic recovery programs.

The book details the rise and fall of the Office of Price Administration, which set up rationing and price controls during World War II and printed individual price control lists to be used by housewives to police prices in small shops. These housewives became known as the "kitchen gestapo," and Jacobs includes dramatic images of the era.

The reforms of the New Deal and World War II gave way to the power of big business, leaving intact parts of the New Deal, such as Social Security and the right to organize, but price controls waned, Jacobs said.

Today's goals for American workers may include purchasing power, but through credit rather than wages. In an epilogue, Jacobs contrasts Filene's 19th-century vision of a consumer-citizen, empowered by union wages, with the "cheap labor, anti-union" vision of Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart.

Jacobs' current research -- titled "Panic at the Pump" -- focuses on the energy crisis of the 1970s, an era of the "worst economic dislocation since the 1930s."

Jacobs is co-editor of "The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History" (Princeton 2003).

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 15, 2006 (download PDF).

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