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Helen E. Nelson Papers
BANC MSS 86/178 c  
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  • Collection Summary
  • Information for Researchers
  • Administrative Information
  • Biographical Information
  • Chronology
  • Scope and Content of Collection

  • Collection Summary

    Collection Title: Helen E. Nelson Papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1864-1999
    Date (bulk): (bulk 1950-1994)
    Collection Number: BANC MSS 86/178 c
    Creator: Nelson, Helen E.
    Extent: Number of containers: 3 boxes, 83 cartons, 1 oversize box, 3 oversize folders, and 1 volume Linear feet: 104.55
    Repository: The Bancroft Library.
    Berkeley, California 94720-6000
    Abstract: The Helen E. Nelson Papers consist of records pertaining to Helen Nelson's career as a consumer activist and document her participation in the national consumer movement. The bulk of the records pertain to her activities with various consumer organizations and government agencies. The papers include Board of Directors records, bylaws, clippings, committee records, conference files, correspondence, meeting and event material, program and project records, writings and publications, and reports. Records in the collection date from 1864 to 1999, with the bulk dating from 1950 to 1994.
    Languages Represented: Collection materials are in English.
    Physical Location: Many of the Bancroft Library collections are stored offsite and advance notice may be required for use. For current information on the location of these materials, please consult the library's online catalog.

    Information for Researchers


    Collection is open for research.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright has not been assigned to The Bancroft Library. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Head of Public Services. Permission for publication is given on behalf of The Bancroft Library as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Helen E. Nelson Papers, BANC MSS 86/178 c, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
    Title: Edmund G. Brown Papers,
    Identifier/Call Number: BANC MSS 68/90 c
    Title: Grace McDonald Papers,
    Identifier/Call Number: BANC MSS 85/139 c

    Separated Material

    Photographs have been transferred to Pictorial Collections of The Bancroft Library (BANC PIC 1986.060--PIC).
    Videotapes/sound recordings have been transferred to the Microforms Collection of The Bancroft Library (sound recordings: Phonotape 2762; videotapes: Motion Picture 783).

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.
    Nelson, Helen E. Archives.
    California. Consumer Counsel.
    California. Industrial Welfare Commission.
    California. Dept. of Industrial Relations. Division of Labor Statistics and Research.
    Consumer protection--California.
    California--Politics and government.

    Administrative Information

    Acquisition Information

    The Helen E. Nelson Papers were given to the Bancroft Library by Helen Nelson on June 16, 1986. Additions were made in 1986, 1994, 1997, 2000, 2004 and 2006.


    No additions are expected.

    Processing Information

    Processed by Xiuzhi Zhou in 1994; additions processed by Lynette J. Stoudt in 2005 and by Alison E. Bridger in 2006.

    Biographical Information

    The following biography is entitled, "Helen Ewing Nelson Biography and Highlights as Consumer Leader" prepared by Judith Robinson, 1986 (see carton 79, folder 21).
    Helen E. Nelson was born October 19, 1913 in Boulder, Colorado, and grew up on her family's farm. She graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors from the University of Colorado in economics and political science, and received a Masters degree in Economics from Mills College, California. She also conducted graduate work in economics and statistics at the University of California, Berkeley.
    While at the University of California, Berkeley, she was a research assistant to the Heller Committee for Research in Social Economics. She also worked as an employment insurance claims agent for the California Department of Employment and for a shipbuilding company as a women's personnel consultant.
    She directed planning and pricing of a budget for single working women for the California Industrial Welfare Commission. Between 1949 and 1959 she was Assistant Chief of the Division of Labor Statistics and Research and Senior Statistician for the California Department of Industrial Relations.
    In 1959 she was named California's first Consumer Counsel, the second such state post in the nation. Governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown established the office to fill a 1958 campaign promise after learning about a similar office created four years before by executive order of New York Governor Averill Harriman. Dr. Persia Campbell had been New York Consumer Counsel, a post that was abolished with the end of Gov. Harriman's term.
    Gov. Brown resolved to have the California office established by statute, which the state legislature did in 1959, despite strong opposition by business interests. Helen Nelson was appointed by Brown to the post after a concerted effort on her part to attract support for the appointment. When she was interviewed by Gov. Brown, he commented, "You sure do have a lot of friends." Nelson replied, "Well, Governor, if you appoint me to this job, I'll need them."
    She was appointed, given an annual office budget of $64,000-$100,000 and a small staff that grew from one secretary to five personnel, including one attorney whose salary was cut out by the legislature in response to opponents to the Consumer Counsel office's activities.
    Mrs. Nelson served in the office from 1959 to 1966, when Gov. Brown was defeated by Gov. Ronald Reagan. She refused to resign in order to force the new Governor to recognize the importance of retaining the office. Ultimately it grew into a large state Department of Consumer Affairs.
    Highlights of Mrs. Nelson's term as Consumer Counsel include the establishment of a consumer constituency of housewives, labor organization members, and many others who came to recognize what the word "consumer" meant to their pocket books and life styles. Nelson's office drafted and analyzed legislation for the Governor, including a bill to include cosmetics in the state's Food and Drug law. It published numerous pamphlets and books on subjects of interest to consumers. It successfully argued for regulation of the amount of water allowed in canned hams; for truth in packaging and labeling of food products for weight and content. The Counsel instigated reforms in consumer credit laws and disability insurance benefits. It pioneered laws on "holder in due course," requiring that whoever owns a note for payment on a product also has the responsibilities of the original seller.
    Of her success as Consumer Counsel, Mrs. Nelson told an interviewer for the National Consumers Committee for Research and Education:
    "In looking back on my seven years as Consumer Counsel, I think probably the most valuable thing I did was not the laws and regulations, although there are some that give me pride. But I think I really did give the people in California a sense of themselves as consumers... They didn't have it at all when I started... The second thing I think I did was make people conscious they had rights as a consumer... We made the consumer-vendor relationship one of a legal contract and rights of both parties under that contract. What is injustice in the marketplace is just like an injustice in the criminal system."
    The Consumer Counsel operated independently but cooperated with the state Attorney General in law enforcement matters. Mrs. Nelson considered her role as one of "representational advocacy." Other states established similar consumer offices following California's lead.
    Her work in California gained her a reputation nationally and she began to be called upon by federal and other state officials to testify on legislative and regulatory issues. She appeared in the U.S. Senate to support Senator Philip Hart's truth-in-packaging bill. She testified at hearings of a commission created by President Lyndon B. Johnson to identify the reasons for the difference in prices paid by consumers for beef versus the prices paid cattlemen. She frequently was asked to testify on consumers' behalves before the Federal Food and Drug Administration, and once was cross-examined for five hours by an industry attorney on the FDA's proposal to limit the amount of shortening and other substances that could legally be added to peanut butter.
    After leaving the Consumer Counsel post, Mrs. Nelson and her husband, Nathan, a consultant and long-time expert on vocational rehabilitation, moved to Chicago, where Mrs. Nelson was named executive vice president of the Illinois Federation of Consumers (1968-1969). After Dr. Nelson's death in 1978, Mrs. Nelson became director of the Center for Consumer Affairs at the University of Wisconsin Extension in Milwaukee, where she served also as Professor of Economics (1969-1978).
    During those years she served on Gov. Patrick Lucey's Council on Consumer Affairs, the Governor's Health Care Planning Council, the Wisconsin Hospital Rate Review Commission and Blue Cross Rate Review Commission; the Wisconsin Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, and other organizations. She participated in the establishment of a group of health programs in Milwaukee and was active as consultant and advisor to several cooperative companies, including an insurance company, a bank, and a housing foundation.
    Her role as a national spokesperson for consumers was enhanced by her 15 years on the Board of Directors of Consumers Union of the U.S., Inc., and 10 years on the Board of the Consumer Federation of America, for which she served two terms as president starting in 1972. She served on the Consumer Advisory Council to two Presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. She was a Public Governor and only woman on the American Stock Exchange for six years.
    At her retirement from the University in 1978, she was honored by the State and the Wisconsin Consumer's League. She also was honored by the Consumer Federation of America and the Consumers Cooperative of Berkeley (CA) as well as others.
    Not actually "retired" from active public life, Mrs. Nelson was appointed to the Federal Reserve Board's Consumer Advisory Council in 1984 for a three-year term. She served on the "Service Charges Committee" recommending Board policies and regulations dealing with consumer access to banking services and their charges. She also continued to serve on boards of consumer and social service organizations.
    Her role as a major influence in marketplace practices and economic issues might be measured in part by the growth of the "consumer movement" in the United States and abroad. Changing attitudes of and toward consumers were outgrowths of Helen Nelson's persistent philosophy that consumers had rights and should argue their cases in legislatures, Congress, regulatory bodies, and courts. Her quiet but persuasive education of both consumers and providers of goods and services brought about many changes in how products are priced, labeled, regulated, and delivered.
    In 1972 Mrs. Nelson articulated her philosophy in a speech to students at Kansas State University. "A model economy is one in which the buyer and seller are on equal footing," she said, "equally informed, equally powerful. They negotiate with the same amount of information, the same degree of strength in relation to each other. If we're going to work towards that model as consumers, we're going to have to organize. One consumer with one housing problem or one unwanted encyclopedia or one lemon car against organized industry--and it is organized in every instance--is not a peer relationship."


    1913 Born in Boulder, Colorado
    1935 Graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Colorado with an economics major, political science minor, and a secondary teaching credential
    1936 Masters Degree in Economics, Mills College, California
    1936-1938 Research assistant, Heller Committee for Research in Social Economics, University of California, Berkeley
    1938-1941 Manager, unemployment claims, California Department of Employment, Berkeley
    1942-1943 Field supervisor, Price Division, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
    1942 Married to Nathan Nelson
    1943-1944 Analyst, manpower requirements, War Production Board, Consumer Products
    1944 Women's personnel counselor, shipbuilding company
    1947-1950 Research economist, Division of Labor Statistics and Research, California Department of Industrial Relations
    1950-1959 Assistant chief, Division of Labor Statistics and Research, California Department of Industrial Relations
    1959-1966 Served as California's first Consumer Counsel
    1961-1967 Consumer Advisory Council to President Kennedy and President Johnson
    1962 Resolution of Commendation, California Assembly
    1967 Distinguished Service, Women for Legislative Action, California
    1967-1968 President, Consumer Federation of California
    1968 President, Association of California Consumers; lecturer, research and statistical methods, School of Social Work, Sacramento State College
    1968-1969 Executive Vice President, Consumer Federation of Illinois
    1969-1972 Associate Director for Research and Development, Center for Consumer Affairs, University of Wisconsin Extension
    1969-1978 Professor of Economics and Director, Center for Consumer Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Extension
    1972 Appointed to Governor's Coordinating Council for Consumer Affairs, Wisconsin
    1972-1974 President, Consumer Federation of America
    1972-1978 Public Governor, American Stock Exchange
    1974-1978 Consumer consultant, National Academy of Science
    1974-1979 Consumer consultant, Office of Technology Assessment, U.S. Congress
    1975-1978 Wisconsin Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection
    1977-1979 Consumer consultant, First Savings Association, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
    1978 Distinguished fellow, American Council on Consumer Interests; returned to California, resided in Marin County
    1978-1980 President's Export Council appointed by President Carter
    1979-1990s President, Consumer Research Foundation
    1980 Consumer consultant, Institute for the Future, Menlo Park, California
    1985-1987 Consumer Advisory Council, Federal Reserve Board of Governors
    1986-1990s Consumer Advisory Panel, Pacific Bell
    2005 Died at the age of 91 in San Rafael, California

    Scope and Content of Collection

    The Helen E. Nelson Papers consist of records pertaining to Helen Nelson's career as a consumer activist and document her participation in the national consumer movement. The bulk of the records pertain to her activities with various consumer organizations and government agencies. The papers include Board of Directors records, bylaws, clippings, committee records, conference files, correspondence, meeting and event material, program and project records, writings and publications, and reports. Records in the collection date from 1864 to 1999, with the bulk dating from 1950 to 1994.
    Series 6, Professional Activities, represents the bulk of the collection. The records in this series document the many organizations and agencies that Helen Nelson was actively involved with, including: Consumer Federation of America; Consumers Union of USA; Alliance for Public Technology; HALT, Americans For Legal Reform; Consumer Advisory Board to the Federal Trade Commission; Consumer Federation of California; American Council on Consumer Interests; and Consumer Interest Research Institute.
    Records documenting the majority of Helen Nelson's career are located in Series 1: California Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Labor Statistics and Research; Series 2: California Office of Consumer Counsel; Series 3: University of Wisconsin Extension, Center for Consumer Affairs; and Series 4: Consumer Research Foundation. Records from her early jobs are located in Series 7, Personal Papers.
    Helen Nelson's speeches and writings are primarily located in Series 5. However, works affiliated with a particular project may be found in other series. For example, the written component of the documentary, Change Makers: The Struggle for Consumer Rights is located with the project files in Series 4: Consumer Research Foundation. Similarly, Helen Nelson's notebooks and notes may be found throughout the collection.
    The collection also contains personal papers of Helen Nelson, her husband Nathan Nelson, and other family and acquaintances in Series 7.
    Note on Arrangement: Background research and miscellany have been placed at the end of each series.