Letter from Joseph Fels to C. W. Post, October 5, 1909
The arguments in this document are representative of one of the 20th century's central questions: How should society adapt to industrialized capitalism? Joseph Fels and Charles William Post, the well-known soap and cereal tycoons, offered two potential answers. Post asserted that wealthy and successful members of society deserved to exercise their power unencumbered, and that redistribution of wealth and the existence of labor unions only served to damage a nation's economy. Fels, on the other hand, believed deeply in workers' rights and social equality despite having been made rich by the very systems he condemned.
Soon after Fels had become wealthy by selling his signature Fels-Naptha soap, which used naphtha as a solvent to clean clothes more effectively, he began searching for ways to fight against societal injustice. He stumbled across Progress and Poverty, by the economist Henry George, and gradually devoted his life to philanthropy at the expense of his business. George's theory of the single tax, also referred to as the land value tax, was based on the principle that land has a universal, unchanging value. Placing a single tax on land would lift the tax burden from other industries, and, he hoped, entice businesses to expand. George envisioned a society where citizens would pay one large tax based on their rented land that would be used to provide free education, medical care, and infrastructure—a utopia where every laborer was accountable to his or her community. Fels invested much of his fortune into making George's ideas into a reality.
By the time Fels sent this letter to Post in 1909, his experiments in utopian single-tax colonies had failed, but his commitment to George's ideology was unwavering. As is evident in the letter, Fels was keenly aware that he owed much of his success to a system that richly rewarded executives who profited from illegal monopolies and exploitation of their employees while denying most laborers basic protections, let alone a share of their companies' profits. Not only did he strive to provide ideal working conditions for his own employees, but he attempted to use the money he had amassed in the private market to reform society so that other entrepreneurs would not be able to exploit the underprivileged. Eventually, the United States would settle into an economic system that combined the liberties and limitations expressed by Fels and Post, a free market tempered by unions and safety nets.
Arthur P. Dudden, Joseph Fels and the Single-Tax Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1971).
Arthur P. Dudden, "Joseph Fels of Philadelphia and London," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 79 (1955): 143-166.
Joseph and Mary Fels Papers (Collection 1953), Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Finding aid
Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 4, The Industrial Workers of the World, 1905–1917, new ed. (New York: International Publishers, 1965).
Henry George, Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth, 50th anniversary ed. (New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1940).