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The Commodification of Quakers

Sue Friday
On Perception (March 2023)
Healing the World

It has unfortunately been easy for commercial enterprises to misappropriate the reputation of Quakers – good quality, honest value, integrity, reliability, old-fashioned simplicity – by applying the name “Quaker” to their businesses: Quaker State (oil), Quaker Mill (grain, cereal), Quaker Bridge (mall), etc.

The year 1919 was, coincidentally, the beginning of Prohibition in the U.S., which the Old Quaker Whiskey Company somehow survived. The “Old Quaker” trademark was recently re-registered – in 2019 – so we may be seeing more of this product.

Another example of “Quaker” misappropriation, began when the American Cereal Company bought a property called “Quaker Mill” in 1877. That purchase became the company’s excuse to apply the word “Quaker” to their products. Americans were becoming increasingly concerned over the purity of their food and drugs. American Cereal Company changed its name to The Quaker Oats Company in 1901. The image of a man in Quaker garb was added to their trademark – a thinly disguised and reassuring William Penn. The company was granted legal trademark rights to the word “Quaker” in 1905, rights that they have renewed without fail ever since. The “Quaker man” in their trademark was eventually given a scroll to hold, which displayed the word “Pure.”

The limits of these trademark rights eventually bumped up against some real Quakers. Before they built their meetinghouse, Visalia Friends met as a preparative meeting (under the care of Orange Grove Meeting) beneath a giant valley oak on the farm owned by Bill and Beth Lovett – beneath “the Quaker Oak.” Many Western Friend readers might remember, about twenty years ago, a lawyer for the Quaker Oats Company saw an advertisement for the “Quaker Oaks Christmas Tree Farm” and sent a letter about this to the Lovetts, demanding that they “cease and desist.” Bill wrote back, pointing out the error (“oaks” not “oats”), and no more was heard from Quaker Oats. The real Quakers were never sued for trademark infringement, and the humorous story lingered on the the Orange Grove Meeting website for many years. Even so, more than half the trademarks containing the word “Quaker” are owned by The Quaker Oats Company.

Among people who are truly familiar with Friends today, Quakers retain a reputation as trustworthy, unpretentious, and wholesome do-gooders – possibly eccentrics. Other people believe Quakers are extinct or that they are makers of oatmeal. Some might associate a vague idea about “values” with Quakers.

When in the hands of a responsible author or film-maker, Quaker or Quaker-inspired characters in a narrative work can help educate others about Friends. A good example is Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed The Handmaid’s Tale (1988), where a Quaker-like group of ethical people helps women escape a tyrannical regime. In this, Quakers are portrayed as positive role models.

Troubling are works that inadvertently promote unfavorable portrayals of Quakers. The Spanish scholar of American Studies, Carolina Fernández Rodríguez, has recently published a book entitled American Quaker Romances: Building the Myth of the White Christian Nation. In this work, Rodriguez examines some of the better romance novels written by Quakers from different branches. Unfortunately, the genre is dominated by the commercial interests of the presses, and those are only sometimes Quaker. And all the presses, even the Quaker ones, conflate contemporary Quaker evangelical beliefs with historical Quakerism. Unfortunately, by comparing what is expressed in these books with what is ignored, Rodriguez concludes that, on balance, these novels convey an unspoken racism.

Is there something we should do? A boycott of “Quaker” romances or “Quaker” whiskey would have little impact. Promoting good literature and films about real Quakers might help. It is obviously too late to trademark the word “Quaker.” Let’s hope these challenges to our integrity will help us grow.  ~~~

Sue Friday is a Quaker historian in Berkeley, California.


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