History of Cooperatives

It is not possible to separate the development of cooperatives from the socio-economic forces that shaped them. Co-ops from the past and those of the present were born during times of economic pressure and social upheaval.

Northwestern University established the first cooperative house in 1872. There were a few other co-ops in the 1800’s and before World War I, however these early efforts are not well documented.

The first cooperative models were intended to meet the housing needs of women, who were beginning to attend college in greater numbers after the Civil War and had difficulty finding a place to live in predominantly male rooming houses. The majority of these early efforts were University-owned or sponsored in some way and the word "cooperative" meant shared work, instead of user control (as we know it today).

The late 1800s saw thousands of women moving to Chicago, both from the country and from abroad. Work in sweat shops during the Industrial Revolution was stressful and insecure, so the co-op served as a place of support as well as a place of affordable housing. A good example is the Jane Club, a community-based cooperative founded by Jane Addams and located near Hull House in Chicago. This cooperative for working women began in 1883 and operates much like our cooperatives do today.

Even though the word co-op back then was used differently, a new concept began to develop as society started to view co-ops as an alternative to both capitalism and communism. During the Great Depression, for example, consumer cooperatives and agricultural co-ops were used as a means to keep the family farm in business.

The modern co-op movement as we know it today, is generally attributed to a group of 28 textile workers in England whom were fired and blacklisted after a strike and — as a result — pooled their resources to start a small dry goods store and escape poverty. Together, they organized the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in 1844 with an emphasis on democratic control by its members and self-governance.

Although the Rochdale workers did not create the first co-op, they were known for codifying the principles and rules of this type of organization — which not only strengthened it, but also formed the basis for a growth-oriented movement. These so called “Rochdale principles” suddenly seemed like a realistic alternative for all sorts of problem, and in nearly every case, someone with experience in the "broader world" brought the Rochdale concept of independence to the situation at hand. At the Universities for example, where the idea of sharing work and expenses "cooperatively" was already a commonly used concept, it was a relatively short step to the idea of consumer ownership embodied in the Rochdale concept. Student cooperatives organized by the students themselves begun in widely scattered parts of the country and then started to expand exponentially first in the U.S. and then in Canada. This rapid growth movement, however faced multiple challenges throughout history due to grand scale of international wars and the demand for men soldiers to join the army. Examples of this include: Pearl Harbour, the Korean War and the Cold War.

The co-op movement, however, always found its way back as a result social and economic conditions which demanded an alternative form of organization. The end of a war, for instance, often translated into tremendous growth within a country’s colleges and universities thus leading to city-wide housing shortages

In 1957, the North American Student Cooperative League (NASCL) and the Cooperative League of the USA (CLUSA) undertook to change the laws of the United States to make federal financing available for student housing cooperatives. After an incredible effort by all involved, President Eisenhower signed the housing bill of 1959, which included an amended College Housing Program. The legislation provided that student housing cooperatives for the first time would be eligible to receive low cost federal loans.

Meanwhile, Canadian students in 1964 were able to secure an amendment to the National Housing Act to allow student co-ops to obtain long term, low interest financing for student co-op projects. More than $50 million in projects, many of them high rises co-ops with 500 to 900 members, were built between 1966 and 1974.

This growth came at a perfect time, coinciding with the arrival of the Baby Boom generation. The housing shortages and radical world views of this group almost insured a market for cooperative housing regardless of the scale and pace of growth. The "counter-culture" that characterized this group emphasized control and independence from the "establishment." What more perfect vehicle for this philosophy than the co-ops? From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, interest in cooperative ideals resulted in the establishment of thousands of food cooperatives in university communities, as well as long waiting lists for housing co-ops