The Early Origins of Cooperatives
In early human societies people learned to cooperate and work together to increase their success in hunting, fishing, gathering foods, building shelter, and meeting other individual and group needs. Historians have found evidence of cooperation among peoples in early Greece, Egypt, Rome and Babylon, among Native American and African tribes, and between many other groups.
Early agriculture would have been impossible without mutual aid among farmers. They relied on one another to defend land, harvest crops, build barns and storage buildings, and to share equipment. These examples of informal cooperation - of working together - were the precursors to the cooperative form of business.
The First Cooperatives
The earliest cooperatives appeared in Europe in the late 18th and 19th centuries, during the Industrial Revolution. As people moved from farms into the growing cities, they had to rely on stores to feed their families because they could no longer grow their own food. Working people had very little control over the quality of their food or living conditions. Those with money gained more and more power over those without. Early co-ops were set up as a way to protect the interests of the less powerful members of society - workers, consumers, farmers, and producers.
In England, consumers were frustrated by the abuses of storeowners, many of whom adulterated products to increase their profits. In many cases, workers' wages were paid in company "chits" - credit that could only be used at the company's stores. The average consumer had very few choices and little control.
Groups of these people began experimenting with various methods of providing for their needs themselves. They decided to pool their money and purchase groceries together. When they purchased goods from a wholesale dealer and then divided them equally among themselves, they were surprised at the savings and higher quality of products they were able to obtain.