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How Did Food Stamps Begin?

August 27, 2019 in History

By Christopher Klein

Started during the Great Depression to help farmers, businesses—and the hungry—the program was later expanded under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

The U.S. food stamp program was launched at a time when the nation was facing a tragic paradox: As millions of Americans suffered from hunger during the . “We can take our pick on these surplus commodities instead of taking what they give us.”

Rochester grocers benefited as well as recipients channeled $50,000 into their coffers during the program’s first four days. “I was cleaned out of flour when the stamp rush started,” grocer Joseph Mutolo told FSCC officials when he became the first retailer to redeem the stamps. “That certainly is different from the old days when you gave food away at the big food depot. Then, when you gave away flour or butter, I sold none. Now it seems I can’t keep stocked up.”

Building on the initial success, the food stamp program was rolled out to additional pilot cities and expanded to half the counties in the United States. Eligible Americans could buy between $1 and $1.50 in orange stamps weekly for each family member. The program fed 20 million Americans until it was discontinued in 1943 when the economic stimulus provided by World War II eased unemployment and crop surpluses.

Food Stamps Revived Under JFK, Expanded Under Nixon

President John F. Kennedy, who had been struck by the poverty he had witnessed in West Virginia during the 1960 Democratic primary campaign, revived food stamps as a pilot program as one of his first actions upon taking office in 1961.

While recipients were still required to pay for their food stamps, the special stamps for surplus goods were eliminated. The Food Stamp Act of 1964, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 31, 1964, codified and expanded the program. “The food stamp plan will be one of our most valuable weapons for the war on poverty,” Johnson proclaimed at the signing ceremony.

A woman using food stamps to purchase her groceries in Allentown, Pennsylvania, 1939.

Although launched by Democratic presidents, the food stamp program saw its largest expansion under the stewardship of a Republican president, Richard Nixon, in the wake of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s highly publicized trips to the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, the Poor People’s Campaign of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. …read more


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How a Deadly Railroad Strike Led to the Labor Day Holiday

August 27, 2019 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

The dramatic origin story behind a favorite end-of-summer long weekend.

Today many Americans see of that first Labor Day celebration.

Throughout the 1880s, labor strikes became increasingly common, with workers protesting their long hours and difficult, sometimes even dangerous, working conditions. In May 1886, the growing tensions between labor and capital exploded into violence during a protest rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Eight anarchists were eventually convicted on murder charges and four were executed.

After the Haymarket Riot, labor organizers and socialists in countries around the world began celebrating May 1 as Workers Day—an occasion U.S. government officials had no interest in sanctioning. Meanwhile, other cities had followed New York’s lead in holding Labor Day celebrations in early September. In 1887, Oregon became the first state to make it an official holiday; by 1894, 22 other states had passed similar legislation.

Outbreak of the Pullman Strike

A mob burning freight cars during the Pullman Strike in Chicago, 1894.

In 1893, during a nationwide economic recession, George Pullman laid off hundreds of employees and cut wages for many of the remaining workers at his namesake railroad sleeping car company by some 30 percent. Meanwhile, he refused to lower rents or store prices in Pullman, Illinois, the company town south of Chicago where many of his employees lived.

Angry Pullman workers walked out in May 1894, and the following month, the American Railway Union (ARU) and its leader, Eugene V. Debs, declared a sympathy boycott of all trains using Pullman cars.

The Pullman strike effectively halted rail traffic and commerce in 27 states stretching from Chicago to the West Coast, driving the General Managers Association (GMA), a group that represented Chicago’s railroad companies, to seek help from the federal government in shutting the strike down.

Federal Injunction, Troops and Violence

Burned freight and coal cars lining the expanse of the Panhandle Railroad, during the Pullman Railway Union strikes in Chicago, July 1894.

On June 29, some crowd members attending a Debs speech in Blue Island, Illinois, set fires to nearby buildings and derailed a locomotive attached to a U.S. mail train. U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney used the incident as an excuse to ask for an injunction against the strike and its leaders from the federal district court in Chicago, which he got on July 2.

“This was the turning point, because it enjoined the ARU and Debs …read more