The milk stations that saved the lives of city kids

After raking in a fortune as co-owner of Macy’s, Nathan Straus devoted himself to making life better for New York’s poor tenement dwellers.

In the depression years of 1892 and 1893, he gave away food and coal to thousands, and he built homeless shelters.

He also turned his sights toward what was dubbed the “white peril,” the raw, bacteria-ridden milk city children routinely drank—milk Straus and many experts believed was linked to New York’s high childhood mortality rate (two of Straus’ own kids had died young).

“Straus was convinced that the discoveries of Louis Pasteur offered the best hope for a remedy to the milk problem,” states jewishvirtuallibrary.org.

So in 1893 he built his own pasteurization plant on East Third Street, then opened 18 milk stations in the city, “which sold his sterilized milk for only a few cents and made free milk available to those unable to afford even that.”

Milk stations popped up everywhere: City Hall Park, Mott Street, Cherry Street, Washington Street, East 66th Street, Lenox Avenue, and eventually Columbus Circle (above, circa 1930), run by William Randolph Hearst’s wife.

When Straus showed health officials that childhood mortality rates had been drastically cut in neighborhoods with milk stations, the city—and soon all cities—banned the sale of raw milk.

Central Park and Prospect Park had their own milk stations: the dairies.

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16 Responses to “The milk stations that saved the lives of city kids”

  1. Bob Says:

    I have an old book (1920-1930 era, I think) which is a walking tour of New York City and the outer boroughs, and one of the stops on this walking tour was the milk station in Tompkins Square Park. If I remember correctly the book suggested you put away your fancy jewelry and watches before coming into the neighborhood to visit Tompkins Square Park. Other than the milk station I don’t think they suggested any other places to visit around here.

    On a side note, I took the book out once and did some of the tour around the West Village, some streets they mentioned sis not even exist anymore. Not the name of the street, the actual streets were replaced by big buildings. The book came with a large map as well, which made the whole thing a bit more fun. Now if I could only find that book around here somewhere…….

  2. Frank Lynch Says:

    This is an interesting reverse parallel to a cholera epidemic in London and the beginnings of GIS. Using histograms of deaths, Sir John Snow hypothesized from the frequencies that there was a singular water pump which was causing a problem.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Snow_%28physician%29#Cholera

    (His mapping procedure was a spatial analysis of the data.)

    Straus’s argument that kids near his stations were healthier is basically the reverse of Snow’s observation. But probably not a GIS-based thing, since Straus already knew where his milk stations were.

  3. wildnewyork Says:

    I’d love to know what’s in the guide book if you ever find it! I have heard of the milk station in Tompkins Square Park, but I’m still on the hunt for a photo.

    • Bob Says:

      You probably heard about the Tompkins Milk Station from an old comment I made on another milk station post a couple of years ago. The book had no pics, which is unfortunate. The book was pretty interesting for someone who has lived here a long time, hearing about places and things that are long gone. They even visited Queens and Brooklyn in the book. I really wish it had not disappeared amongst the piles of stuff that I own. It probably ended up in storage, which means it may be years before I find it again. I wish I could at least remember the name, I would just buy another if I could find one on the internet. If I do ever find it I will definitely let you know.

  4. Scoop Says:

    And yet. And yet. This step ruined milk as a delicious drink and turned it into a sort of caloric water. Strauss (and Pasteur) made milk safe to drink in a way that ensures that few people will ever wish to drink it.

    Or is it homogenization that denudes milk of all flavor?

    • petey Says:

      when my parents grew up, on their farms, at table people would jokily ask for ‘more cow.’ i’ve had milk from the cow, it’s about half-way between whole milk and light cream. i liked it, but i could see if it’s not to everyone’s taste.

  5. nycedges Says:

    A rich man who devoted himself to helping the poor?…rare then, even more rare now!

  6. Peter Says:

    In fact, raw milk has never been 100 % scientifically proven to cause any illnesses so all the negative information out there is really conflicting. I believe, it only contains bacteria if it becomes contaminated, they are not naturally present.

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