Once upon a time, cows were milked in Brooklyn's Prospect Park
. The city dairy provided a safe, affordable source of nutrition for children in 19th-century New York, and was an important bulwark against one of the city's most insidious killers: swill milk. The dairy and its cows have disappeared, but the story of the swill milk scandals
Nineteenth-century Brooklyn was home to a number of neighborhood breweries and distilleries
, which produced mash as a waste product. *Lots* of waste product. The obvious solution? Sell it to locals as cow feed. The problem, however, was less evident to the eye. "Cows who subsisted on this rotten mixture lost their teeth, developed skin ulcers, running sores, and rotted tails that fell off. Dairy cows frequently carried bovine tuberculosis, which could infect humans who drank their milk," according to tenement.org
The origins of the practice were uncertain, said the New York Times
in 1860. The City Inspector, however, saw its consequences, and, as the newspaper put it "the evil continues without the slightest abatement or any prospect of diminution, unless the adoption of measures of the most stringent character is resorted to. So far from there being any improvement in the quality of the milk, or in the character of the nutriment on which cows are fed, the very reverse would seem to be the case, judging from the number of deaths among the children to whom the poisonous compound is administered." The milk, already questionable, was then diluted with water; chalk was added for color. Nursing mothers were, at the time assured that cow milk was better for baby, and the nursing rate dropped; often, poor mothers extended their swill milk supply by adding even more water. And thousands of children died as a result.
The origins of the fight for pure milk, however, can be traced back to Robert M. Hartley's "An Essay on Milk, as an Article of Human Sustenance,"
published in 1842. Hartley, a crusader against alcohol and alcoholism, decried the effects of "distillery-slop" ("the refuse of grain, distilled through water after it has undergone a chemical change") upon cows: "The cattle, under this most unnatural management, become diseased, and the lactescent secretions not only partake of the same nature, but are impure, unhealthy, and innutritious." (For more background on Hartley's crusade, see "The Fight for Clean Milk."
) And that, he noted, was what was being fed to the city's already-vulnerable children, even as the sales of slop propped up the whiskey business. He estimated that 10,000 cows were "most inhumanly condemned to subsist on the residuum or slush of this grain" and provided firsthand testimony
-- colored, of course, by his wish to see distilleries shut down-- on dairies that used slop. Childhood mortality rates were alarmingly high, and though the temperance fighter asserted that swill milk contributed to these numbers, it would be another ink-stained wretch whose images moved a metropolis to care about many thousands of infant deaths.
In May and June of 1858, Frank Leslie's
Illustrated Newspaper published two articles called "Our Exposure of the Swill Milk Trade."
The series, with sketches
by a young Thomas Nast
(who would go on to become one of America's greatest political caricaturists; see also his 1878 depiction
of the swill milk situation), outraged the public. Leslie's expose also drew the ire of Tammany Hall's Michael Tuomey
, who is "most remembered for his obstruction of investigations into the “Swill Milk” public health and animal cruelty scandal that erupted in New York City during the summer of 1858." (Sound familiar?
But hey, at least America got condensed milk
as a result of that scandal). The ASPCA, formed in 1866 by Brooklynite Henry Bergh
, was another early campaigner against swill milk, and spent most of its first decade exposing the cruelty behind it. Ultimately, the effort failed, but its legacy did not.
The 20th century would bring change--reform of food laws, the banning of swill milk; reduced infant mortality rates--if not the end of poisoned milk. The city dairies that had been set up as safer alternatives outlived their usefulness as the delivery and quality of milk improved. Brooklyn’s Prospect Park dairy was torn down in the 1930s; Central Park's dairy still stands, albeit restored and now serving as a visitor's center. The cows of New York disappeared, leaving behind them only Udderless Brooklyn and the continuing (though qualitatively different) search for unadulterated milk