Members of clandestine raw milk clubs may think they are the first to thirst for a better milk supply. But in New York City, the search has been a struggle for centuries.
Before the advent of refrigeration, milk couldn’t travel far from udder to glass. Early herds grazed in northern Manhattan, but by the 1840s the majority of dairies serving the city were crammed near West 16th Street, a neighborhood devoid of pasture but rich in another source of cattle feed: distilleries.
A steady diet of the booze by-product “spent grain” was not ideal, and unscrupulous dairymen further doctored this “swill milk” with water, chalk, stale eggs and magnesium. Unsanitary conditions meant milk was often contaminated with deadly bacteria that caused outbreaks of cholera, tuberculosis and typhoid. Each year, thousands of infants died as a result of drinking tainted milk.
By 1900, when New York’s population had swelled to over three million and the city’s dairies couldn’t keep up with demand, a complex system evolved that brought over a million quarts of milk each day from farms in Connecticut, New Jersey and upstate New York. But milk from the countryside was far from farm fresh. Health inspectors fretted over how to monitor the complex network of nearly 100,000 dairy farms that supplied the city’s milk, not to mention the processing plants and delivery trains that it passed through on its way. Although laws required inspections to ensure that that milk met sanitary standards, by the 1920s milk was arriving from a half dozen states and the city was simply unable to inspect every farm, creamery and conduit. Milk bootleggers became common, and uninspected milk, like other illegal libations, grew into a multimillion dollar industry.
But for many New Yorkers, even dubious black-market milk was prohibitively expensive. A 1918 study found that, to save money, many mothers fed their children tea, coffee and even beer instead. Progressive reformers demanded that officials address the shameful state of city milk. Advocates hailed pasteurization and established “pure milk” stations in poor neighborhoods to dispense free milk that had undergone the bacteria-killing heat treatment.
When milk-related deaths decreased drastically, politicians took notice and the clean milk crusade became a political cause. Starting with the 1918 Hylan administration, “Mayor’s Milk Funds” raised pubic awareness—and money—to ensure a safe supply of milk. Extravagant fund-raisers included a parade with 22 elephants and dancers from the Ziegfeld Follies (who carried milk pails to collect donations), and a boxing match at Yankee stadium that drew 63,000 spectators and raised $390,000 ($4.7 million in today’s dollars).
The funds paid for increased inspections, stations dispensing pasteurized milk, and free milk for schoolchildren. By the 1930s New York had become a model of milk integrity and the Times praised its supply as one of the cleanest in the country. Ironically today some crusaders carry on the spirit of the milk reformers’ campaign but with the opposite objective: legalization of milk that has not undergone the mandatory pasteurization advocates fought for nearly a century ago.