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Made in America

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Usually around this time of the year, I start seeing stars and dollar signs. Retailers are constantly reminding me that as an American celebrating my country’s independence, I should buy more American-made products. There may as well be a poster of Uncle Sam pointing at me, saying, “Buy American because the common good needs you!” Well, Common Good, I need to pay my tuition…but I understand what you are saying.

The popularity of buying American often spreads nationally through Presidential campaigns. Benjamin Harrison, Warren G. Harding, and Woodrow Wilson are just a few of the presidents elected to the White House because of their “America First” campaigns.

Protecting American-made products and manufacturing is not a new idea. In fact, self-sufficiency was much discussed as the nation was formed. The Buy American movement started in 1764 when 50 Boston merchants, tired of British constraints, agreed to give up items imported from England. Their actions went on to inspire entire towns, cities, and influential leaders to do the same. Before you knew it, Bostonians were throwing tea into the harbor and the American Revolution forged ahead.

Another famous Buy American campaign materialized in response to the Great Depression. William Randolph Hearst, Jr. used the front pages of his 27 daily newspapers to promote a Buy American campaign in the 1930s. His yellow journalism not only stirred domestic economic growth but also degrading sentiments towards non-Americans. Eventually, buying American became so popular that President Hoover signed it into law as the Buy American Act of 1933. With growing demands for domestic apparel and a 25 percent drop in imports, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) started regulating the industry with the Wool Products Labeling Act of 1939. The FTC went on to create the Fur Products Labeling Act (1952) and eventually the Textile Fiber Products Identification Act (1960). As an individual allergic to angora, I’m thankful for the FTC and all their hard work. Because of them, I can expertly avoid hives and can say that my 65-percent polyester and 35-percent cotton sweater was made in Vietnam.

Beginning in 1886, the National Consumers’ League promoted a label to combat cheap sweatshop labor. Although the location of the manufacturer is not indicated on the label, it does represent American-made goods since the National Consumer’s League issued the labels as they worked directly with the factory. In a way, this was an early unpublicized "Made in America" label.

Traditionally, the standard for “Made in U.S.A.” as written by the FTC was “all or virtually all” of production had to be done in the United States.  The standard was challenged in the 1990s when the Crafted With Pride in U.S.A. Council instigated another Buy American trend. This particular campaign was not as successful as previous crusades. NBC’s Dateline exposed Wal-Mart for increasing overseas imports, and the FTC reviewed New Balance’s Buy American campaign and found them to be deceiving the public with products not “Made in U.S.A.”. Since New Balance saw a 25-percent increase in sales thanks to its Buy American campaign, it asked the FTC to loosen the requirements. The FTC announced in 1997 its plan to revise the “Made in the U.S.A.” standard to 75 percent of production from the United States. The Made in U.S.A. Coalition, formed by the National Consumers’ League, the AFL-CIO, and various other interest groups, responded with heavy congressional lobbying against the modification. The FTC dropped revision efforts and retained the “all or virtually all” standard that is held today.

In the end, it usually boils down to money. Retailers look for a competitive edge and manufactures look for protection. Of course, nationalism and cultural trends are also at play. Historian Dana Frank accurately captured the 1930s movement in her book, Buy America: the Untold Story of Economic Nationalism: “the Buy American movement of the 1930s, by diverting its charges at foreigners, cleverly sought to divert Americans’ frustration, fears, and anger away from corporate power or the structured inequalities of capitalism.”

Made in America is a complicated issue with a long history. I say congratulations to those who can overlook the more moderately priced t-shirt in favor of the expensive “Made in U.S.A.” version. Your purchase will help some Americans…maybe not the ones shown in the television ads but Americans nonetheless. Moreover, congratulations to those who do not buy American. You, like me, can take pride in the fact that you are becoming economically self-sufficient like our founding fathers by avoiding student loans and debt.

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    Katharine KleinKatharine Klein is an intern for the Division of Work and Industry and the American Enterprise exhibition at the National Museum of American History.View all posts by Katharine Klein