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The Cincinnati Time Store As An Historical

Precedent For Societal Change


Steve Kemple
(Presented at CS13, Cincinnati OH, March 19, 2010)

1. The First Time Store (Excerpt)

I’ll begin by reading an excerpt from a 1906 biography by William Bailie entitled
Josiah Warren: The First American Anarchist, A Sociological Study, in which the
author describes in detail the establishment and workings of the Cincinnati Time Store:

On the 18th of May, 1827, there was opened unpretentiously at the


corner of Fifth and Elm Streets in Cincinnati a little country store,
conducted on a plan new to commerce though not unimportant to the
well-being of society. It was the first Equity store, designed to illustrate
the Cost Principle, the germ of the cooperative movement of the future.

When the advantages of the store became known and its method
understood, it was the most popular mercantile institution in the city. The
people called it the “Time Store,” not because it gave credit or sold goods
on installments, but on account of the peculiar and original method
adopted to fix and regulate the amount of the merchant’s compensation.
This was determined on the principle of the equal exchange of labor,
measured by the time occupied, and exchanged hour for hour with other
kinds of labor. Let us illustrate. A clock hangs in a conspicuous place in
the store. In comes the customer to make his purchases. All goods are
marked with the price in plain figures, which is their cost price, plus a
nominal percentage to cover fre ight, shrinkage, rent, etc., usually about

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four cents on the dollar. The purchaser selects what he needs, with not
over-much assistance or prompting from the salesman, and pays for the
same in lawful money. The time spent by the merchant in waiting upon
him is now calculated by reference to the convenient clock, and in
payment for this service the customer gives his labor note, something after
this form: “Due to Josiah Warren, on demand, thirty minutes in carpenter
work - John Smith.” Or, “Due to Josiah Warren, on demand, ten minutes
in needlework - Mary Brown.”

The store-keeper thus agreed to exchange his time for an equal


amount of the time of those who bought goods of him. Profits in the
customary sense there were none. Here was the application of the
principle of labor for labor, the Cost Principle in its most primitive form,
which, through experience, was subsequently modified so as to allow for
the different valuations of the various kinds of labor.

As to the moral results of the Cost system in practice, it prevented


needless waste of the vendor’s time by thoughtless purchasers; while the
marking of each commodity at cost price stopped all haggling, and
promoted mutual respect and confidence in place of sharp dealing and
distrust. While it was Robert Owen who, in a plan devised in 1820 to
relieve the industrial woes of Ireland, first proposed the use of labor notes,
yet the idea had not been put in practice until Warren, in his original way,
successfully carried it out.

His store was also a magazine for the deposit of saleable products.
A report of the demand was posted up each morning, showing at all times
what goods would be received. The depositor, when his goods were
accepted, was at liberty to take in exchange other goods to an equal
amount from the store or to take Warren’s labor notes instead. And as
these labor notes were expressed in hours and not in dollar, it was found
advisable to keep exhibited for the information of traders a list which was
compiled from the ascertained average cost in labor-time of all staple
articles, showing their prices in hours. Besides this, the public had access

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to the bills of all goods purchased, so that no grounds of dispute could
exist as to price.

The plan of accepting from depositors for sale in the store only such
goods as were known to be then in demand prevented a glut in any line,
and avoided the mistake which, a few years later, was largely responsible
for the collapse, after a brief existence, of Robert Owen’s Labor Exchange
in London.

There were no rules and regulations to bewilder the public in the


Equity store, the subjoined notice being deemed by Warren sufficient:

Whatever arrangements may be made from time in


this place, they will always be subject to alteration, or to be
abolished, whenever circumstances or increasing
knowledge may exhibit the necessity of change.

Just two years after the doors first opened to his Time Store, in May
of 1829, Warren declared the experiment a success and left Cincinnati to
pursue other ventures implementing his anarchistic theories.
Interestingly, the land on which the Time Store was built was leased from
none other than Nicholas Longworth for a duration of 99 years. Before
leaving Cincinnati, Warren relinquished his rights to the land on the
guiding principle that it would be unethical to profit from another’s use of
the land, or by any other indirect means.

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2. Josiah Warren’s Life & Career

Warren grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, where he underwent formal training


as a musician. As a young man he developed a reputation as a band leader and an
inventor; it was this occupation that led him to his first residence in Cincinnati, where,
in his leisure time, he invented a lard burning lamp. This was a dramatic improvement
on the existing tallow burning lamps, and the popularity of the device provided him with
modest financial success. It was here in Cincinnati that Warren attended a lecture by
Robert Owen and was immediately enamored with his ideas. He became a devoted
student to Owen’s theories and decided to join his communistic utopian experiment,
commenced shortly thereafter in nearby New Harmony, Indiana. He spent two years
working with Owen at New Harmony, but in 1827, after anticipating the failure of the
venture, Warren left for Cincinnati. The Time Store was to be a positive critique of
Owen’s practices; his perceptive observations turned out to be accurate when Owen’s
commune dissolved several years later. He wrote of the community, in an 1856 letter:

It seemed that the difference of opinion, tastes and purposes increased just
in proportion to the demand for conformity. Two years were worn out in
this way; at the end of which, I believe that not more than three persons
had the least hope of success. Most of the experimenters left in despair of
all reforms, and conservatism felt itself confirmed. We had tried every
conceivable form of organization and government. We had a world in
miniature. --we had enacted the French revolution over again with
despairing hearts instead of corpses as a result. ...It appeared that it was
nature's own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us ...our 'united
interests' were directly at war with the individualities of persons and
circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation... and it was evident
that just in proportion to the contact of persons or interests, so are
concessions and compromises indispensable.

Josiah Warren would eventually return to New Harmony and remained there for
several years throughout the 1840’s. By this point the commune had been completely
absorbed into the surrounding industry, and very much resembled any other southwest
Indiana town. But bitter memories of Owen’s failure were fresh in the minds of its

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residents; when he attempted to set up a Time Store there in 1842, its opening was met
with a threatening display of firearms. Despite opposition, the venture proved to be a
success and even benefited the surrounding economy by driving prices down and
drawing curious visitors from around the Midwest.

During this residence in New Harmony, Owen wrote prolifically and developed
his most famous invention: the continuous cylindrical printing press, on which he
printed his 1841 Manifesto. He freely distributed this pamphlet to visitors at the New
Harmony Time Store, and copies were circulated largely by hand throughout the
Midwest. Few of the original pamphlets survive; the text was reprinted once in a very
small edition, by Joseph Ishill in 1952. Editions are exceedingly scarce; a copy of Ishill’s
reprint resides in the Rare Books room at the Main Library in downtown Cincinnati.
For the sake of encouraging renewed local interest, we have reprinted the text here in
Creative Economy, along with a short introduction by Isaac Hand, who has been a
collaborator on the research culminating in this lecture.

Before and after his second residence in New Harmony, Warren traveled
throughout the Midwest, founding Time Stores wherever he went, and establishing
several successful settlements founded on the principles of Equity. His first “trial
village” founded in 1835 was located 40 miles south of Canton, Ohio. Among the most
famous of his settlements was Modern Times, founded on Long Island, New York, along
with fellow reformer Stephen Pearl Andrews. The project descended into chaos when
newspaper readers in New York City were introduced to its existence, and it
subsequently became a notorious haven for cranks and depraved individuals seeking
refuge in its anarchistic structure.

In 1847, Warren returned again to the Cincinnati area. Thirty miles to the east,
on present day Route 52 in Clermont County, a group of Spiritualist Communists had
founded Utopia in 1844. While they were friendly with Warren and acquainted with his
teachings, they openly rejected his views on property and individual liberty.
Spiritualism was a belief system popular throughout the 1800’s in which many of its
adherents supplemented their (often but not always) Protestant Christian beliefs with
occult practices such as séances, the use of mediums, and prominent belief in a spirit
world. The original founders of Utopia believed that the earth was about to enter a

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35,000 year period of peace, and that the formation of small communes was necessary
to bring about enlightenment and the new age. They also supposedly believed that such
a new age would be signified by the world’s oceans turning into lemonade. For reasons
unfathomable to me, this venture was near shambles by 1847. In December of that year,
the Ohio River flooded, sweeping away the town hall, in which at the time the
Spiritualist leaders were having a celebratory gathering. It is said that the weary ghosts
of Spiritualistic Communists haunt the banks of the Ohio to this day, making their
presence known on dreary nights when the river banks are shrouded in fog.

The surviving members contacted Warren for his advice, and he agreed to take
over leadership of the community. He converted the residents to anarchism and
established two Equity Stores at the center of the town. The commune flourished for
many years thereafter, though was only under the direct leadership of Warren until
1849. The town of Utopia exists to this day as a gas station, a few houses, and two
standard green signs bearing the word “Utopia” in upper case Highway Gothic.

Josiah Warren died of dropsy in 1874 at age 76.

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3. Philosophy, Perspectives, etc.

Josiah Warren, as may have been gathered up to this point, was a professed
advocate of Individualism and Anarchism. He is considered by many historians to have
been the first American born Anarchist, and is credited with having established its
uniquely American strain. His thinking was acknowledged by John Stuart Mill and
Herbert Spencer as being tremendously influential to their own. His emphasis on
individual sovereignty was born out of his critique of Robert Owen’s cooperative
movement, whose failure he saw as being due to the disavowal of property and lack of
consideration of individual differences. Warren, much like modern day American Right
Wing Libertarians, saw the State as something whose reach should be as small as
possible. But unlike modern day Libertarians, his philosophy, despite being rooted in
critique, is largely positive. He writes at length about the necessity for what he
alternately calls “voluntary,” or “coincidental cooperation” He says in his 1863 book
True Civilization:

If one decides for all, then all but that one are, perhaps, enslaved; if each
one’s title to Sovereignty is admitted, there will be different
interpretations, and this freedom to differ will ensure emancipation,
safety, repose, even in a political atmosphere! And all the cooperation we
ought to expect will come from the coincidence of motives according to the
merits of each case as estimated by different minds. ... No subordination
can be more perfect than that of an Orchestra; but it is all voluntary.

We can see here a clear glimpse into his ontology, which has its roots deeply
embedded in the individualistic American spirit of the seventeen and eighteen
hundreds. “One, such as Warren, could cite the Declaration of Independence as a logical
antecedent to Anarchism (albeit a uniquely American individualistic Thoreau-esque
variety) without a tinge of irony.” While it is not clear if he was acquainted the writings
of Emerson or Thoreau, he was surely motivated by a shared sentiment and was
undoubtedly their ideological kin.

Warren’s theory of Equitable Commerce, embodied in the practice of “Labor for


Labor,” runs parallel to the writings of French Socialist Anarchist philosopher Pierre-

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Joseph Proudhon. Proudhon, who infamously proclaimed “La propriété, c'est le vol!” or
“Property is theft!” (around which a group show at U-Turn is planned for later this
year), is usually considered to be the originator of Mutualism. Though Proudhon and
Warren were contemporaries, it is unclear if and to what extent the two thinkers were
aware of each other’s work. Whether or not its theoretical bases may be entirely
attributed to Warren, the Cincinnati Time Store is still historically recognized as the first
application of the Mutualist economic theory. Interestingly, it could be shown that in
some sense, this discursive relation to Proudhon situates Warren’s thinking in proximity
to Marxism, with whom Warren would undoubtedly have been highly critical.

Josiah Warren summarized his interpretation of Mutualism with the maxim,


“cost the limit of price,” which lived on as a ubiquitous mantra for Individualist
Anarchism throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century.

In its purest form, the Mutualist school of thought holds that in an ideal society
each person (or collective of persons) possesses a means of production, and where all
exchanges in a free market are equivalent to goods or services embodying “the amount
of labor necessary to produce an article of exactly similar or equal utility.” The
economic infrastructure necessary to facilitate such a market on a large scale has
differed from thinker to thinker, though most have involved some sort of centralized
mutual-credit bank guided by the same principles it facilitates. A tenet central to all
proponents of Mutualism is the notion that all profit is not only fundamentally
unjustifiable, but that, being indicative of an essentially non-equivalent transaction, it is
indistinguishable from usury or extortion. The notion of interest is minimally retained
in most variants, including Warren’s, as a means to accommodate for the accumulation
of labor associated with a good or service. For example, a pound of rhubarb will
accumulate interest equivalent to the labor necessary to transport it to the store, and
then for the labor of shopkeepers and the overhead at the store, and so on. This was
exemplified in Warren’s iconic clock, marking off interest accumulated in proportion to
time spent with the shopkeeper.

At heart, Josiah Warren’s attempts at social reform were rooted in pragmatism.


Though undoubtedly a deep thinker, his writings reflect a tremendous valuation of self
reliance. Perhaps to his disadvantage, though certainly indicative of the sincerity and

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depth of his convictions, as well as his intelligence and clear mindedness, Warren did
not express, at least in writing, any conscious effort to situate his ideas within the
context of historical or contemporary political, social, or economic ideologies. While the
crux of his theories, as a result, are rife with fallacies, it was ultimately his emphasis on
pragmatism and experimentation, twofold with his ingenuity, that gave him his
advantage over Robert Owen’s more austere but ultimately impracticable approach.
While Owen approached social reform an aloof, classically minded essayist, Warren’s
approach was that of a working American inventor, concerned above all with practicality
and innovation.

Although Warren’s ideology is subject to many sharp criticisms, it is ripe for


contemporary discussion and reinterpretation. In our publication, Isaac Hand gives
several examples of Time and Labor Economies as well as Mutualist trade networks
developed to facilitate the execution of creative endeavors. In the present global
recession, such creative economies are burgeoning alternatives to a failing system. All
such economies share a common ancestor in the Cincinnati Time Store.

But what I find to be most fascinating, local historical interest aside, is the
Cincinnati Time Store as an alternative model for societal change. The dominant belief
is that broader change happens from either the bottom up or the top down (assuming
anyone still finds “Reaganomics” a plausible theory), and its occurrences tend to be
described with the verb “sweeping.” But the Cincinnati Time Store offers an historical
precedent for a different kind of change, one that more or less happens from the middle
outward, and whose movement resembles a complex organism rather than a simplistic
verb. Even discounting most of the theoretical bases for his reform, as to which we
might ought to be inclined, Warren intuited a model for change that allowed for organic
growth and that required neither unanimous consent nor dramatic conversions. His
Time Stores, more so than his Equity Villages, could accurately be described as
“parenthetical” or “micro-economies”, defined from but not existing independently of a
larger economic structure. In a very literal sense they were “little Utopias,” existing
unpretentiously on their own terms without violating the structure they sought to
critique.

Such entities are not necessarily Anarchistic; it just so happens that the clearest

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precedent was founded on Anarchistic terms. To come to the final point of this lecture,
I’d like to simply invite you to consider that there is an obvious correlation between
Josiah Warren’s Time Stores and contemporary creative DIY spaces. Such spaces exist
on their own terms, incorporating a parenthetical economy implemented on the basis of
voluntary cooperation by their members. When there is a crisis in arts funding, as we’ll
hear about soon, such structures have the capacity to offer buoyancy and resilience. As
makers of spaces, what better way to put what we are doing than by “building little
Utopias?”

As Josiah Warren put it, “Society must have a new experience as a new basis.”

As Gary Gaffney put it, “Art Is Not Optional.”

As Publico put it, “Sike.”

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4. To the representatives of various local creative spaces present tonight:

In the present global recession, we are faced with the daunting task of
redefining the world as we go. We must do so in no uncertain terms.

In the present global recession, we “...must remember that an economy is more


than a model of commercial exchange: it is a belief system. To adopt an economic
model is to appropriate an ontology, a whole structure of meaning and valuation.”
We must remember this in no uncertain terms.

In the present global recession, we must present economic alternatives, even


wildly implausible ones, on the basis that change is far more subtle and complex than
we had hoped. We must present them in no uncertain terms.

In the present global recession, we must seek collaboration, community,


discourse, and contradiction, in hopes that our Utopias will become vicarious
paradigms for a renewed economy.

In the present global recession, we must accept that we may not comprehend
the differences we make, but must press on with our projects. And we must accept this
in no uncertain terms.

And finally,

In the present global recession, we must press on in our Utopias, so that, upon
the coming age of enlightenment, we will be greeted, in no uncertain terms, by the
world’s oceans turning into lemonade.

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