In 1926, Frederick Schlink, an engineer in White Plains, New York, began distributing lists of products among his neighbors and friends, who have organized into a consumers' club. These lists highlight both good and bad products. The next year, Schlink and economist Stuart Chase collaborated on a book called "Your Money's Worth," which attacked large corporations, the products they made, and especially the claims they made in their advertising. The book called for companies to use scientific testing methods in their advertising, called for consumers to make products at home rather than buying them if companies didn't shape up, and called for government regulation if necessary.
The response to "Your Money's Worth" (favorable from consumers, unfavorable from most companies) led Schlink to start Consumers' Research in 1928, an expanded version of his consumers' club. Consumers' Research also began publishing expanded versions of Schlink's product lists in the form of a magazine, called Consumers' Research Bulletin. So as not to be beholden to any advertisers, the Bulletin accepted no advertising.
The Great Depression of the 1930s increased interest in Consumers' Research and its magazine, since as people had less money to spend, they wanted to make sure they were getting value for their dollar. Circulation of the Bulletin reached the tens of thousands.
In 1933, Schlink and Consumers' Research engineer Arthur Kallet co-authored the book "100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics," which expanded on portions of "Your Money's Worth" and brought up many other issues. The popularity of this book led to public demand for something to be done, which eventually led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1938.
Meanwhile, Schlink moved Consumers' Research headquarters from White Plains to Washington, New Jersey, and the engineers and writers were unhappy. Tensions bubbled for two years until 1935, when three employees attempted to form a union and were immediately fired by Schlink. 40 other employees went on strike, but Schlink kept Consumers' Research going, and the Bulletin in business, with scabs.
In retaliation, the strikers got together and formed a competing organization back in the state of New York in early 1936. Arthur Kallet was named the first director of Consumers Union.
The first issue of Consumers Union's magazine, Consumers Union Reports, appeared with a cover date of May 1936. The cover story was on the differences between Grade A and Grade B milk. Other articles looked at the advertising claims made by Alka-Seltzer (it turned out to be highly overrated) and credit unions (they turned out to be better than banks in most cases). Products that were tested scientifically included stockings and soap, with each variety given a rating of either "Best Buy," "Also Acceptable," and "Not Acceptable." Like Consumers' Research Bulletin, Consumers Union Reports does not accept ads.
The product tests solely on inexpensive items such as soap and stockings were done out of necessity, since Consumers Union couldn't afford to buy expensive products to test, and refused to accept free samples from manufacturers. Later in 1936, however, CU lucked out and found automobile enthusiast Lawrence Crooks to test cars for them. Crooks was wealthy and had a lot of rich friends; many of the cars Crooks tested for CU in the early years were either bought with his own money or were borrowed from his friends.
In the late 1930s, Consumers Union Reports gained nationwide media attention when it was attacked by two much more popular magazines. CU had called the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval a fraud, and in return, Good Housekeeping claimed Consumers Union Reports' actions were prolonging the Great Depression. Reader's Digest, in an article called "Guinea Pigs, Forward March," said of Consumers Union, "They are out to discredit, if not to destroy, the system."
During World War II, CU supplemented the regular magazine with Bread and Butter, a weekly newsletter reporting on war-related shortages and rationing. In 1942, the magazine's name was shortened to Consumer Reports because the word "union" had a negative connotation for some potential readers. Despite this, readership dropped during the war due to the lack of availability of consumer products, but once items were back in stores, readership grew quickly in the late 1940s, growing to 400,000 by 1950.
In 1954, Consumers Union moved its headquarters from New York City to a converted factory building in Mount Vernon, New York where there would be more space to test products. For similar reasons, CU moved again in 1991, this time into a custom-built facility in Yonkers called the Consumer Reports National Testing and Research Center, a 250,000-square-foot building with 50 laboratories of various sizes. Tours of the building are given to CU members (subscribers to Consumer Reports) who show up for the organization's annual meeting, held every October.
Through the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st century, Consumers Union continued testing products and services, from things that were nearly unimaginable in 1936 such as computers and nationwide fast food chains, to old standbys such as soap and stockings. The results continued to appear in Consumer Reports, still with dangerous products rated "Not Acceptable," the occasional product getting a "Best Buy" rating if it was of excellent quality and an excellent value, and various aspects of each product rated on a 5-point scale from "red circle with a white dot in the middle" down to "solid black circle." (In 2000, that red circle with a white dot in the middle became part of the Consumer Reports logo, representing the "O" in "Consumer.") Consumer Reports claimed a circulation of over 5 million by the end of the 1990s, putting it among the top 10 most widely read magazines in the United States, although it doesn't appear on the Audit Bureau of Circulations' official lists because it doesn't have its circulation audited because it doesn't carry advertising. Most of those 5 million copies went to subscribers (and thus members of Consumers Union).
During the 1980s, CU began publishing several spinoff publications, first a magazine for kids called Penny Power (now called Zillions) and then two newsletters, Consumer Reports Travel Letter and Consumer Reports on Health.
Over the years, in addition to the product test reports, Consumer Reports continued printing advocacy articles calling for action, including one of the first reports on the hazards of cigarette smoking (1953), reports on strontium-90 in milk (1959), and a 3-part report on water quality in the U.S. (1974). Of course, every such report is guaranteed to draw similar letters to the editor, such as a 2002 article on the drawbacks of economic deregulation resulting in "...What I pay for is information on product quality, not your analysis of economic issues."
- History page at consumerreports.org
- Information on "100,000,000 Guinea Pigs" at historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5090/
- Letter to the editor quoted from the September 2002 issue of Consumer Reports, found sitting on my coffee table