The Surprisingly Messy Origins of American Chain Stores

We're used to multi-state (and multi-national) chain stores. Today, debate about these stores tends to focus on whether they should be more strictly regulated. But when these stores began to seriously expand in the 1920s, the debate was about whether they should be allowed to exist at all. By the 1930s, rallies against chain stores were ripping through the country, and between 1923 and 1935, state legislators introduced 902 anti-chain bills.

My work on chain stores asks on what grounds chain stores argued for their entrance into American life. I investigate the huge PR response launched by chain store organizations, identifying five different lines of argument.

  1. Chain stores are no threat to small businesses.
  2. Chain stores are good for communities.
  3. Chain stores save consumers money.
  4. Chain stores promote efficiency.
  5. Chains have been around since time immemorial.

I think it's important to know what these arguments are so that we can judge whether chain stores have made good on their fundamental promises to Americans.

Watch how some of these promises are repeated in a 2006 Wal-Mart commercial.

Read about my presentation on chain stores at Harvard University in 2006.

Watch my lecture on the growth of chain stores, presented at Yale University in 2009.