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In February, 1917, thousands of women stormed the streets in the poorer parts of Brooklyn, New York, overturning pushcarts and setting them on fire. It took police hours to restore order. [1] The women were protesting rapid increases in the prices of food staples and decried the injustice of hungry children. Congress was soon in debate. One senator warned that the disorders showed that “the country is dividing into two great classes–the very poor and the very rich.” [2] In fact, the U.S. had had many earlier commodity riots, going back to the founding of the nation; it was a frequent response to market pressures.[3]

Pushcarts in New York (Source)

Pushcarts in New York (Source)

In 1779, Philadelphia artisans mobilized to demand that merchants’ prices on “necessaries” be restrained. A free market was dividing the city into rich and poor, they charged, and they wanted “a just and regulated price.” The merchants association replied that “the limitations of prices is … unjust … by compelling a person to accept less in exchange for his goods than he could otherwise obtain, and therefore acts as a tax upon one part of the community only.” Moreover, they argued, allowing the market to dictate prices meant less hoarding and more efficient distribution of necessities. [4] The debate about price justice continued in Philadelphia that year (more below), but it largely ended in America over a century ago – the housewives’ riot of 1917 notwithstanding. The merchants won. (more…)

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