Markets, Productivity, and Happiness in a Historical Perspective

“If a Man Eats Not, Neither Can He Work,” How a Gilded Age liberal program of sanitary and food reform did away with the labor theory of value

Chassonnery-Zaigouche Cleo, University of Cambridge
Maas Harro, University of Lausanne

Session From Sweatshops to Thrifty Households: the substitution of household management for factory reform in the American Progressive Era Authors: Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche (CRASSH, Cambridge, UK) and Harro Maas (CWP, UNIL, Switzerland) This session examines the period from roughly 1880 until 1930 in the United States, in which the labor theory of value was replaced with a marginalist or neoclassical theory of value. This intellectual shift in the economics profession was embedded in a much larger process of socio-economic change. A combination of liberal businessmen, economists, and to, a large extent, women scientists shifted focus of social change from factory to the household: discourses on work and production conditions in tenement dwellings (the so-called sweatshop system) was displaced by discourses about (women) consumption and the efficient management of the household. A social conflict between labor and capital became reframed in terms of individual responsibilities and family values for which Benjamin Franklin’s Art of Virtue was taken as its poster-boy. Family values of thrift and frugality became major pillars for the health and wealth of the Nation. In our paper, “If a Man Eats Not, Neither Can He Work,” How a Gilded Age liberal program of sanitary and food reform did away with the labor theory of value, we examine how a collaboration of liberal businessmen-economists and women sanitary scientists used research in nutrition sciences to argue against salary increases and labor reform. The separation of debates about wages and work conditions by debates about family values became most visible at the Chicago World Fair of 1893: While anti-sweatshop activists campaigned for labor reform in downtown Chicago, nutrition research financed by liberal reformers was presented at the World Fair itself as essential to the moral economy of the household and the state.

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Keywords: sweatshop, labor theory of value, wages, needs