The Story of Milk in America

MILK IS INSEPARABLE FROM THE HISTORY of early America – from its rural beginnings, its urbanization and its industrialization.

The Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in 1620 without livestock, therefore sans milk, and over half of them were dead by spring. It wasn’t until the ship Charity arrived the following March with three heifers and a bull that survivors began to recover from chronic malnourishment. By 1626, the Pilgrims repaid the London men who had sponsored their colony thanks largely to plentiful supplies of milk, butter and cheese.

Cows are cultural(Photograph courtesy of Jayme Frye on flickr

Cows are cultural
(Photo courtesy of Jayme Frye on flickr)

The American milk drinkers and their dairy herds lived well up until the mid-1800s, even in urban areas. Most families had enough space for at least one cow, and others kept their bovines in common pastures, often in the heart of town. Boston Commons was one such spot, with cows grazing there as late as 1850. But America’s relationship with the cow began to sour as workers moved into growing cities. New York, for example, grew from a town of 33,000 in 1790 to more than 600,000 by 1850. And as the population grew, the urban meadows began to disappear.

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As that land shrank, demand for urban milk grew. Masses came to the cities and needed milk, especially for their weaned children. Poverty, poor sanitation and inadequate nutrition rendered many urban women unable to breastfeed, and others simply didn’t have the time between long factory shifts.

Small dairies in the countryside couldn’t produce the volume demanded, and there was no reliable way of transporting milk quickly or safely enough to avoid contamination or spoilage.

Grain distilleries, on the other hand, were thriving. And as the demand for milk grew in cities and urban pastures vanished, distillery owners began housing cows next to the distilleries, feeding them hot waste known as distillery slop. What began as an experiment soon became mainstream, producing more milk at a lower cost than any other method. By 1840, the swill milk system was firmly entrenched.

The milk produced by urban distillery owners was of such pitiful quality that some dairymen added plaster of Paris to lessen its bluish hue.

The slop made cattle diseased and emaciated, but yielded an abundance of milk. The liquid was of such pitiful quality that some distillery dairymen added plaster of Paris to lessen its bluish hue.

According to Moore’s Rural New Yorker, a weekly newspaper that dealt with agricultural issues, slop milk accounted for three-quarters of all milk sales in New York City in 1852.

As the distillery dairy rose, so did infant mortality rates, mostly from diarrhea and tuberculosis. Many medical professionals of the day laid the blame squarely on slop milk, recognizing that tuberculosis occurred in both cows and humans and believing the terrible milk to be the connection. Their proposed solution? Pasteurization.

In 1882, German physician Robert Koch proved that the human and bovine tubercle were not identical or transmissible, and said that humans had nothing to fear from the bovine bacillus. The announcement, which rendered the entire basis for pasteurization null and void, shocked the public and was a nuisance to pasteurization advocates. Many of them simply said Koch was wrong.

The real problem, more likely, was that the cows were unhealthy and milking conditions horrendous. Milkers were often dirty, sick or both, and equipment was seldom sanitized. But in spite of the dangers, distillery dairies sold milk well into the 1900s. New York City’s last, in Brooklyn, closed in 1930.

After World War II, dairy farms shifted to providing the largest possible quantity at a minimum cost, employing the use of pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers and large equipment – along with the pasteurization process – to cover imperfections once masked by plaster of Paris.

Today just about everything is mechanized except the cow. Large, confinement-feeding systems plump cattle to bursting. The milking machines take the place of hungry calves, releasing the milk into large vats. Tankers with stainless steel bodies carry the milk to laboratories for testing, on to processing, pasteurization and packaging – and finally to our grocery store shelves. ■


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