Throughout the early and mid-1900s, dairy products were a significant source of foodborne illnesses. Hundreds of children died due to the consumption of milk, leading to the 1911 creation of milk stations that dispensed free pasteurized milk. During the 1930s and 40s the New York City Department of Health, under commissioners Shirley W. Wynne (1928-1933) and John L. Rice (1934-1942), took many steps to regulate the production and storage of dairy products, which were regularly consumed in high quantities by New Yorkers of all ages. Milk and ice cream were of particular concern.
During these years much of the Department of Health’s activity focused on enacting and enforcing regulations to ensure the eradication of foodborne illnesses caused by contaminated milk. Grades were assigned to milk and printed on packaging to inform the consumer of the quality of the product, prices were regulated (leading to distributor strikes), and strict regulations governed the distribution and packaging of milk. Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia (1934-1945) was especially involved in milk regulation. La Guardia and Rice’s goal was to provide affordable and safe milk for New York City residents while also supporting dairy farmers.
Unregulated milk distribution was a significant cause of disease. One strategy to combat disease spread by “bad” milk was to irradiate it. This refers to the process of ionizing radiation. Irradiation was—and is still—considered a safe way to prevent milk and other foodborne illnesses and reduce the spread of invasive pests, which also spread disease.
Regarding packaging, cartons needed to both preserve the milk and clearly state the milk’s expiration, as well as clearly indicate the milk’s grade. Regulations on the production of bottle caps were also strict. The caps needed to provide the same preservation function while informing the consumer of the grade of milk.
In 1936 a milk strike occurred after La Guardia attempted to create an affordable milk price policy with corporate distributors. The goal of the policy was to make milk affordable to regular people as well as maintain a steady and reasonable income for the dairy farmers. New York City residents consumed over 3 million quarts of milk per day, so Mayor LaGuardia and the Health Department prepared for a citywide emergency. The usual distributors refused to ship and sell their milk for the determined price and would not distribute to New York City until the price was raised. Distributors claimed that the price increase was essential to the continuation of their business. But the farmers producing the milk were barely breaking even and lower income New Yorkers struggled to purchase sufficient milk to sustain a family.
La Guardia had promised an over-the-counter price of 11 cents per quart. After the distributors withheld the shipments of milk to the City, La Guardia was forced to look elsewhere for a steady supply of milk. Smaller distributors, who were happy to have the extra business, agreed to the set price. Also, the City began rationing milk. This included providing milk to families with infants at a lower price and enforcing strict regulations on the quantity of milk one individual was allowed to purchase. The planned rationing went as far as requiring coffee shops to pour the allotted amount of cream or milk into the customer’s coffee or tea, rather than allowing them to do it themselves. This crisis was eventually solved and a promised over-the-counter price of 12 cents a quart was settled on. Distribution continued as normal. This price was not always attainable and the distributors continued to argue with La Guardia about not fulfilling his promised price.
Another milk strike emerged in 1939, but this time from the Dairy Farmers Union. The dairy farmers were demanding a blended payment of 5 cents a quart. Solving this issue required negotiations among the producers, distributors, city officials and consumers. La Guardia promised a blended price of 4 cents per quart to the farmers which triggered a backlash from the distributors who were now bound to pay the farmers 4 cents per quart of milk. Nevertheless the agreement was signed. Keeping this price fixed created issues, as prices for some grades of milk still fluctuated. It is safe to say that the mid- to late- 1930s newspaper headlines were chock-full of milk.
Ice cream was becoming an increasingly popular treat among New Yorkers at this time. In general, regulation of this dairy treat lagged behind the regulation of milk. Commissioners Wynne and Rice worked to ensure ice cream manufacturers complied with the City’s evolving Sanitary Code. The Code required ice cream be made with pasteurized milk in proper facilities, and prescribed specific labeling and classification of these products based on their ingredients. Enforcement included inspections.
Manufacturers of frozen dairy products would sometimes contact the Department of Health for clarification of the rules if they wanted to sell their product within the confines of the city. In 1933, the Joe Lowe Corporation wrote to the Department of Health about their new product, the Fudgicle. The company argued that the Fudgicle (originated by Popsicle) is “neither an ice cream, an ice, or a sherbet, but rather a confection” and therefore should be exempt from the specific regulations governing ice cream products. The company included packaging and details about the ingredients as evidence. After considering the issue, the Department and relevant city officials decided the Fudgicle was indeed considered a frozen dessert under the Sanitary Code. The Joe Lowe Corporation therefore had to abide by City health regulations.
Bootleg ice cream became an issue as well. The Department of Health outlawed the sale of ice cream in packaging or containers other than the original, especially on the streets. It also established standards for the quality of ingredients and the cleanliness of manufacturing spaces.
Check back for more posts about the Health commissioners’ records!
This project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.