Posts Tagged ‘Swill Milk’

The milk stations that saved the lives of city kids

November 3, 2011

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

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.

City park dairies: fighting the “swill milk” scandal

September 5, 2009

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.