City park dairies: fighting the “swill milk” scandal

Brooklyn’s Prospect Park had one, complete with cows grazing beside it. Central Park’s still exists (minus the cows), but now it’s a visitors’ center.

ProspectparkdairyWe’re talking about a dairy: a place where kids could buy safe, cheap milk in the late 19th century.

The dairies and their on-site cows served a vital function at the time. Before pasteurization, milk—often brought in from upstate farms in warm wagons—routinely spoiled, sickening children.

And if they drank “swill milk,” it killed them. This rotten milk came from cows kept in city stables next to whiskey distilleries.

The cows were fed mash from the distilleries rather than grass, and the milk they produced was bulked up with flour or plaster to make it appear fresh. 

CentralparkdairyIt wasn’t. An 1858 swill milk outbreak—aided by corrupt city officials whose sympathies lay with dairy owners—killed thousands of city residents. 

Stronger food handling laws, pasteurization, and refrigeration helped make the park dairies obsolete in the 20th century. Prospect Park’s was torn down in the 1930s; the ornate, Victorian dairy in Central Park (at right) was restored a few decades ago.

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6 Responses to “City park dairies: fighting the “swill milk” scandal”

  1. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    In the 60s had to make sure I wasn’t on acid when I saw that psychodelic looking building, what a freaky sight and beautiful too.

  2. Bob Says:

    I think there was something like this in Tompkins Square Park as well at some point. I vaguely remember reading a great book, which was a guided walking tour of New York City, much like the audio ones you get nowadays. The book was written in the 20’s or 30’s, and the only reference to the East Village was a quick walk down St. Mark’s Place to Tompkins, where you could see kids drinking milk. I think they also mentioned that it was a very dangerous neighborhood after dark. The book came with a street map of New York City, listing many streets which do not exist today. If I ever find my copy of the book I will let you know the exact title, it was a lot of fun walking around New York with that book looking for buildings and addresses that they mentioned.

  3. wildnewyork Says:

    It wouldn’t surprise me if they had a dairy in Tompkins Square Park; the neighborhood had so many poor immigrant families in the late 19th century. I’ll see if I can turn up anything.

  4. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    On 10th Street and Ave C & D there was a live chicken seller who would cut off the head of the chicken you wanted. I recall as I was watching a chicken about to be slaughtered a swinging scale struck me the head. In those days, the 50s, you weren’t rushed to a hospital, my mother merely took me away weeping but ok…I wonder if the chicken made it out with such luck…but I doubt that.

  5. The milk stations that saved the lives of city kids « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Park and Prospect Park had their own milk stations: the dairies. Share this:TwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  6. A desperate appeal to save the city’s sick babies | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] the 19th century had a deservedly bad reputation, with much of New York’s supply coming from “‘swill’ milk stables attached to breweries and distilleries in the city,” explains this […]

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