Modern cooperatives, whether they market agricultural products, operate a food store, or purchase hardware supplies, typically operate according to a set of widely recognized cooperative principles. These “cooperative principles” tie cooperatives across the United States and the world together in a larger movement. Where did these principles originate? How did the cooperative model and movement develop?
The cooperative principles recognized by the International Co-operative Alliance, and the broad cooperative community, are generally recognized to have originated from the efforts of 28 working men who founded the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society in 1844 and operated a cooperatively owned store that started out selling butter, flour, sugar, and oatmeal. The Rochdale Pioneers, as they came to be known, were working toward social goals that arose out of the conditions of their time, including harsh working conditions.
Hannah Scott, CFAES Center for Cooperatives, shares the story of the Rochdale Pioneers.
The original rules of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society included:
- That capital should be of their own providing and bear a fixed rate of interest
- That only the purest provisions procurable should be supplied to members
- That full weight and measure should be given
- That market prices should be charged and no credit given nor asked
- That profits should be divided pro rate upon the amount of purchases made by each member
- That the principle of ‘one member one vote’ should obtain in government and the equality of the sexes in membership
- That management should be in the hands of officers and committee elected periodically
- That a definite percentage of profits should be allotted to education
- That frequent statements and balance sheets should be presented to members
Today, the cooperative community recognizes seven core principles.
While modern cooperative principles can be traced to Rochdale, England in the mid-19th century, the cooperative business was not a new form of organization. In fact, mutual insurance companies existed as early as 1530 in Paris and London and various ‘friendly societies’ operated in England in the 1700’s to provide financial assistance to members in difficult times of sickness, unemployment, or death. Purchasing cooperatives operated in various Western European countries by the 18th century and consumer controlled mills operated in England in the early 1800s. The Fenwick Weavers Society in Scotland began collective purchasing in 1769; according to the Rochdale Pioneers Museum, the society is the “earliest cooperative retail society for which records survive.”
Some cooperative scholars trace the history of cooperation much further than these efforts. Rather, they look to ancient social norms of mutual aid, such as the collegia of ancient Rome, the craft guilds of 11th century Europe, and the Ahi movement in Anotolia or what is today, Turkey. Ed Mayo’s short publication, “A Short History of Cooperation and Mutuality,” provides a fresh perspective on these movements and the ways that they were influential in shaping the modern cooperative movement.
In the United States, Benjamin Franklin helped to start the first recognized cooperative business, a mutual insurance company, in 1752. Agricultural cooperatives played an important role in the development of cooperatives in the U.S. with the first ag co-ops beginning operations in 1810 in dairy and cheese making. From 1810 until 1887, cooperatives were founded in many sectors of agriculture, including hog marketing, irrigation, fruit marketing, and cotton ginning, among others. The Grange, one of the first farm organizations in the U.S., organized cooperative development efforts while other farm groups like the American Farm Bureau and National Farmers Union were also instrumental to developing agricultural cooperatives. In fact, Farm Bureau helped to establish Growmark and Nationwide Insurance while National Farmers Union helped to establish CHS, Inc., the largest agricultural cooperative in the U.S. today.
Hannah Scott, CFAES Center for Cooperatives, discusses the early history of agricultural cooperation in the United States.
“A Short History of Cooperation and Mutuality.” (2017). Retrieved from https://www.uk.coop/sites/default/files/uploads/attachments/a-short-history-of-cooperation-and-mutuality_ed-mayo-web_english.pdf
“History of the Cooperative Movement.” (n.d.) International Cooperative Alliance. Retrieved from https://ica.coop/en/whats-co-op/history-co-operative-movement.
“The Rochdale Principles.” (n.d.). Rochdale Pioneers Museum. Retrieved from http://www.rochdalepioneersmuseum.coop/about-us/the-rochdale-principles.