Udderless Brooklyn
September 15, 2010 6:10 PM   Subscribe

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 lives on.

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.
posted by MonkeyToes (28 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
I stumbled across this story while searching for something completely different and became intrigued by the swill milk scandal instead. As a non-New Yorker (and not yet a cow owner), I hope that natives will chime in with additions and corrections. Enjoy.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:12 PM on September 15, 2010

Don't know if it's mentioned in any of these links (still working through them) but a friend who works for Central Park told me that long ago the dairy there used to mix talc with water to give to the orphans when they ran out of free milk.
posted by hermitosis at 6:18 PM on September 15, 2010

The Tenement Museum tour in New York discussed this pretty extensively - one of their example families looses an infant to malnutrition from swill milk. They played a song which was distributed as a sort of early PSA at the time. The internet only knows about this song with reference to the Tenement Museum itself, but I did manage to dig up the chorus:

“Oh, mothers, be careful and cautious/What milk for your children you buy,/Be careful ’tis not the swill poison,/That’s sold in some carts that drive by.”
posted by heyforfour at 6:24 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

heyforfour, thank you. I had never heard of this song, but it turns out to be G.W. Anderson's "Swill Milk No. 2."
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:28 PM on September 15, 2010

Apparently sung to "I'm A Broth Of A Boy" (pdf sheet music link)

Damn, the LOC is totally cool! I had no idea I could do this kind of research from my living room!
posted by hippybear at 6:35 PM on September 15, 2010

Oh, and MonkeyToes... nice post title.
posted by hippybear at 6:36 PM on September 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

There was a BBC radio 4 programme on Frederick Accum and food swindlers a couple of years ago. Full text of his treatise from 1820. Some of the stuff he found in food was highly entertaining, if you aren't in any danger of eating it.

Nice post, thanks.
posted by shinybaum at 6:37 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

See! the free-market will regulate itself!
posted by The Whelk at 6:43 PM on September 15, 2010 [9 favorites]

Farmers still feed spent brewing grains to their dairy cows, but not as a primary feed.

"Each cow gets a big shovel full in the morning and one at night," explains Hissa. The grain has lost much of its sugars, enzymes, and flavor in the brewing process, but according to Hissa, it contains enough protein to supplement a cow's regular rations of corn, dry grains, and hay (Truini 2001).

posted by Brian B. at 6:45 PM on September 15, 2010

Oh my god. Give things what they're supposed to eat. Cows eat grass. Babies eat breast milk. Why don't we just make everything eat dirt? Dirt is soo cheap.
posted by amethysts at 6:56 PM on September 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

You get a favorite just for the title.

I've always been interested, while in urban neighborhoods, to pass by old garages that look like they might have housed cowmen in the days before fresh milk came in by truck or rail.

Having money, at the time, couldn't quite protect you. Even into the 1900s, New York children were routinely sold candy dyed with arsenic, copper, chromium, and mercury. I understand that eggs were sold still covered in chicken feces and rife with salmonella, even when -- wait, never mind, we do that now, so it's totally okay.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:58 PM on September 15, 2010

Why don't we just make everything eat dirt? Dirt is soo cheap.

Haiti: Mud cakes become staple diet as cost of food soars beyond a family's reach.
posted by adamg at 7:34 PM on September 15, 2010

Time was, when a Harvard professor could graze his cow in Harvard Yard.
posted by A dead Quaker at 7:34 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

For all the publicity and attempts at doing something about swill milk, though, the problem wasn't solved by politics or public action; it eventually got solved by the railroads. Vanderbilt recognized — probably not alone — the demand for clean milk, and it was one of the first products to be brought down from upstate New York and Connecticut when a continuous rail line was built into the city. That's what finally got rid of it.

Milk trains ran into NYC from points north, eventually from as far north as Ogdensburg on the Canadian border, up until WWII.

There is something interesting but also a little depressing, if perhaps not really surprising, about that; people knew how bad swill milk was for years (decades, really), but there wasn't the combination of will and ability to do much about it before a change in technology made solving the problem significantly cheaper.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:56 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Give things what they're supposed to eat. Cows eat grass.

I would agree, but to clarify in case of confusion, mash is made from sprouted grains that are grasses.
posted by Brian B. at 8:07 PM on September 15, 2010

When I was homebrewing once, a friend watching the process was amazed at the spent grains that I wound up discarding (I now have a compost pile that eats them up). "A cow would love that shit," he said.

Although the brewing process does extract nutrients, I believe enough remain in the spent grains to leave them more generally more nutritious than, say, grass. But as pointed out in the links of Brian B., the spent grains are initially hot and wet and tend to spoil quickly. Perhaps it was attempts to feed cows spoiled material that lead to the notion that spent grains make for sick cows.
posted by exogenous at 8:08 PM on September 15, 2010

By grass I mean grass that is still grass, not a substance that used to be grass at some point but now causes tails to rot and fall off. And yes I realize that not all babies tolerate breast milk and not all mothers can breastfeed yes yes yes.
posted by amethysts at 8:13 PM on September 15, 2010

not a substance that used to be grass at some point but now causes tails to rot and fall off.

This is why I stayed in this thread, because I knew that someone would believe that spent grains caused a disease, rather than from malnutrition or abuse.
posted by Brian B. at 8:18 PM on September 15, 2010

Milk trains ran into NYC from points north, eventually from as far north as Ogdensburg on the Canadian border...

And interestingly enough, the regulation of the importation of such milk was the subject of a series of Supreme Court cases expanding federal power through the commerce clause. A justification for this was the need for healthy milk.
As milk is highly perishable, a fertile field for the growth of bacteria, and yet an essential item of diet, it is most desirable to have an adequate production under close sanitary supervision to meet the constantly varying needs. ... More than sixty thousand dairies located in the states of New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont hold certificates of inspection and approval from the Department of Health of the City of New York .... Since these producers are numerous enough to keep up a volume of fluid milk for New York distribution beyond ordinary requirements, cut-throat competition even among them would threaten the quality and in the end the quantity of fluid milk deemed suitable for New York consumption.
The fallout from these cases now bedevil modern-day people trying to get their hands on raw dairy products.
posted by exogenous at 8:24 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

The story behind the Pure Foods Act, and possibly the founding of the FDA.

Can't imagine how the adulterated milk would taste, but the story always makes me think of the Simpsons. "But I always drink my ... 'malk'?"
posted by Jinx of the 2nd Law at 8:39 PM on September 15, 2010

This is why I stayed in this thread, because I knew that someone would believe that spent grains caused a disease, rather than from malnutrition or abuse.

Indeed. I think that the main reason the mash angle got so much play was that the scandal was denounced by temperance campaigners. The problem wasn't so much the spent grains, although, by the time it was fed to the cows, it may have been less-than-fresh, but rather, unsanitary conditions in an era before pasteurisation (and even germ theory, for that matter), and rampant adulteration (which remains an issue, see recent events in China).
posted by Skeptic at 1:18 AM on September 16, 2010

See! the free-market will regulate itself!

In the first volume of Capital, Marx describes at some length the kinds of things found in bread produced by urban bakeries in the 1850s.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:30 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Brian B., just for comparison: YORK DAIRY FARMERS FEED CHOCOLATE TO THEIR COWS (their caps, not mine). The article is a few years old, but as recently as two years ago, the factory was still selling discards to local farmers. No cite; I was told this by an employee.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:18 AM on September 16, 2010

What fascinates me is that producers were able to keep selling swill milk without being charged with premeditated murder.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:04 AM on September 16, 2010

I have always found it interesting that the little patch of water between Govt. Island and Brooklyn is called Buttermilk Channel, possibly because "crossing it was so rough that the farmers' milk was churned in to butter by the time they reached Manhattan."
posted by Danf at 6:58 AM on September 16, 2010

There is a really cool book called Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee that goes into detail about NYC's problem with swill milk.

The book basically starts with the 19th century and goes forward into present day, looking at food scandals and frauds along the way. It's really, really interesting and as you get closer to present time, really disheartening. The US has really backslid on food safety in the past fifty years.

There's plenty of weird facts in the book, too. For example, did you know that margarine had to be pink in some dairy-producing states when it first came out? This was to signal to consumers that margarine was not made from real milk but rather oils that the dairy industry Did Not Approve Of. Such a cool book. I heartily recommend it.
posted by librarylis at 10:58 AM on September 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

To follow up on Brian B.'s points--See Hartley, page 145. Elsewhere, he describes the steam coming off hot slops as they are fed to the cows. Remember, too, that this is a work from 1842 written by a temperance crusader and not a vet.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:17 PM on September 16, 2010

The symptoms of the cows appear to me like those of a nutrient deficiency. I can imagine cows wouldn't be very healthy after eating nothing but distillery slop, which I suppose has heated to boiling for distillation, not merely to the cooler temperatures of perhaps 160 degrees F seen in a mash for beer.
posted by exogenous at 2:21 PM on September 16, 2010

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