"No Danger of a Milk Famine in New York"

March 31, 1883

William A. Rogers

"No Danger of a Milk Famine in New York"

Agriculture; Labor; New York State, Agriculture; Public Health;

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Although the Orange County shipments are 100,000 quarts short, a corresponding increase from the Croton Valley will enable the thrifty milkman to pull through.

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon by William Allen Rogers depicts a strike by dairy farmers (background) in Orange County, New York, as an opportunity for a corrupt New York City milkman (foreground) to adulterate his milk supply with water (from the Croton aqueduct) and chalk (for coloring).

In the late-nineteenth century, the increasing specialization of American agriculture occurred in the Northeast when numerous farms switched from raising a variety of crops and livestock to concentrating on providing perishable goods—dairy products, fruits, and vegetables—for the region’s expanding cities. New York City was the nation’s largest market for milk, and two-thirds of its milk supply was furnished by Orange County, located in the Hudson River Valley just northwest of the city.

By the early 1880s, many Orange County farmers had limited their enterprises to the production of milk, which they sold to creameries which processed milk and cream and made butter and cheese. The Orange County farmers bought cattle feed, calves, foodstuffs, and other supplies from outside the area, and were in debt from mortgages and low returns on their investments. A glut on the market meant that dairy farmers received only about 1˝-2˝˘ per quart of milk, far below the relative value of other agricultural goods. The creameries, which ran on low overhead, sold butter derived from the milk’s cream to New York hotels for 20-30˘ per quart, and paid the farmers at the market rate of the remaining skimmed milk.

In early 1883, the angry dairy farmers of Orange County went on strike, which newspapers labeled as the "Milk War." Groups of the dairy farmers gathered at railroad stations and at other transportation junctures to halt the shipment of milk to New York City from those who had not joined the strike. In some cases, the strikers offered to buy the milk, but more often, they simply emptied the content of the milk cans onto the ground. The strikers became known as "bears" after they initially tried to blame two traveling circus bears for the first spilling of milk. Local police were called out to protect the railroad tracks after striking farmers threatened to destroy them, and armed guards were posted on the milk transports.

William A. Rogers, artist of the featured cartoon, also contributed several sketches of the Milk War for the April 7, 1883, issue of Harper’s Weekly. One shows "A Spilling Committee" of two strikers who have blockaded a bridge with a log and barrels, while another reveals the intentional spilling of the milk at a railroad station, as striking farmers struggle with railroad porters. The newspaper was not sympathetic to the strikers, whom the journal believed should be opening their own creameries and producing their own supplies. Emphasizing those points are a Rogers picture of a resourceful farm woman and her son using their milk to whip cream and churn butter, and one of a "Discouraged" dairy farmer looking forlorn as his cattle feed on (undoubtedly) purchased hay.

In late March, 1883, a temporary settlement was reached between committees of the striking dairy farmers and the milk retailers, the latter representing about 800 of their fellow businessmen. They agreed to set the price of milk at 2˝-4˘ a quart, depending on the season. Disputes between milk producers and dealers would resurface at times over the years, the most notable of which were the milk strikes of the early 1930s during the Great Depression.

Robert C. Kennedy

"No Danger of a Milk Famine in New York"
July 14, 2024

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