Connecticut’s Consumer Protection Pioneers

Connecticut’s consumer protection efforts all started with milk, butter and margarine. In 1886 the State legislature created a Dairy and Food Commission made up of three divisions:
  • Dairy;
  • Food and Drugs; and
  • Devices and Cosmetics.

The Commission's two employees were the Commissioner and the Deputy Commissioner. Their main responsibilities were to monitor:

  • the sale of imitation butter and adulterated molasses
  • the manufacture and sale of food products, and
  • the purity of milk.

Within a few years, a new federal Pure Food and Drug Act brought more responsibility to the Dairy and Food Commission. That law, applying to "everything that man or animal eats or drinks," called for the Commission to protect the public from adulterated, misbranded, poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs or liquors, and prompted the hiring of two more employees.

By 1910, the tiny agency was also monitoring cocaine levels in cough syrups, and by 1934, with Prohibition in full swing, began inspecting new beverages known as "soft drinks." 

During World War II, the Commission found a sharp rise in the amount of adulterated and misbranded foods on the market. While many hoped that this would be a temporary situation, it was not. In a matter of months, the Commission seized thousands of gallons of "pure wine vinegar" after chemical analysis revealed the product was principally water and acetic acid. "Pure black pepper" proved to be a mixture of salt crystals and wheat hulls, and many brands of imitation maple syrup were seized because of their high water content. Inspectors were also kept busy checking the sale of hypnotic drugs, generally known as sleeping pills, which were widely used during the war years.

After the War: Connecticut Food and Drug Commission

"Consumer protection" continued to diversify and expand. The 1947 Connecticut General Assembly abolished of the little Food and Dairy Commission and created a new Food and Drug Commission, with Frederick H. Holbrook of Madison as its first Commissioner. The new agency was composed of three divisions:

  • Weights and Measures;
  • Drugs, Devices and Cosmetics; and
  • Food.

In its first year, the Food and Drug Commission seized 10,000 gallons of contaminated pickles. Its drug inspectors found a barbituric suppository 250 times more potent than declared on the label. At least two children who had taken the drug slept for more than two days. The agency also collaborated with the State Health Department to check the safety of cold wave permanents and survey the potency of cod liver oil being sold in Connecticut.

Hurricane Carol crashed the state’s shoreline from East Haven to the Rhode Island border in 1954, wreaking $500,000 worth of damage (more than $4 million in 2009 dollars). With the storm still raging in some places, Food and Drug inspectors began supervising the inspection and removal of contaminated products.

A year later, the Great Floods of 1955 presented the Commission’s mightiest challenge yet. First, Hurricane Connie blew through Connecticut on August 13, 1955, dropping between four and six inches of rain. The remnants of Hurricane Diane hit the state just five days later, dropping twenty more inches of rain in a 36-hour period. The ground simply could not hold any more water, and on Friday, August 19th, floodwaters rose.

Connecticut’s major rivers, including the Farmington, Mad, and Still Rivers in Winsted, and the Naugatuck and Quinebaug Rivers in the Putnam-Killingly region, overflowed their banks. Smaller streams also flooded, so damage was not restricted to larger river basins. Sixty-seven Connecticut towns were affected, leaving more than 100 people dead and 1,100 families homeless.

Governor Abraham Ribicoff visited the scenes of destruction and President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared Connecticut a disaster area. But the state hardly had time to recover when heavy rains once more saturated Connecticut in mid-October.

Gale-force winds and high tides resulted in new destruction along the shore in towns such as Norwalk. Connecticut earned a second federal disaster area designation.  

While the Food and Drug Commission was well prepared, the 1955 flood devastation was so great that all routine agency work was suspended. State and federal civil defense agencies collaborated with the Commission and the State Health Department to open emergency headquarters in the State Civil Defense Office, operating 24-hours a day for the first week. Governor Ribicoff issued a proclamation seizing the entire supply of food and drugs contaminated by flood water or due to power failure.

The damage to individual property, business, industry, and to State and municipal facilities was estimated at nearly half a billion dollars. Damage to food, drugs and alcoholic beverages was estimated to be between $12 and $18 million.

In all, the cleanup, segregation of contaminated items and sanitizing of stores and equipment wasn’t finished until the final days of 1955. Yet, all that hard work and collaboration paid off for Connecticut’s citizens. Despite the significant risk of illness and disease brought by sustained flooding, not one case of typhoid or food poisoning was traceable to flood-contaminated food or drugs.

On January 1, 1958, a new federal Hazardous Substance Act took effect, mandating that household products containing toxic ingredients carry a warning label with the name of the ingredients and first-aid information. The law was passed in response to several deaths reportedly caused by ingestion of poisonous household products. These tragic cases were complicated by the fact that physicians allegedly were unable to quickly learn the identity of the poison.

Boom Times

By 1958, the United States had changed dramatically. The notion of an agrarian society built primarily upon family farms and a direct-to consumer relationship was now a memory. A booming, sophisticated, post-war economy distanced buyers from sellers, while a growing number of middlemen -- wholesalers, distributors and advertisers -- now made the manufacturer anonymous (other than by brand name), and often inaccessible.

Suddenly, there were twenty kinds of cereal, fifteen brands of frozen food, and electric everything. A new consumer lexicon had to be learned. Polyester. Perma-prestl Sweet ‘n Low. Freeze-dried. Formica. Hi-Fi. American Express.

Post-war new home construction and the growth of home-related industries ignited a buying boom.  Electronic media and the commanding presence of television in nearly every American living room primed consumers to make purchase decisions based on image and advertising, rather than by personally inspecting the goods.

This new, impersonal marketplace tended to magnify certain consumer issues, sparking renewed calls for greater advocacy, regulation and control.