What Price Milk?
A dime for a quart of milk today sounds like a bargain, but back in the 1930s it was anything but. With prices fluctuating from nine cents to 14 cents a quart – the equivalent today of $1.34 to $2.08 – milk was unaffordable to Depression-era New Yorkers.
People understandably grew angry. In November 1937, following a milk price increase, a mob of mostly women, along with a Holstein cow named Bossy, gathered at Foley Square in Manhattan to protest spiraling milk prices.
Meanwhile upstate dairy farmers were barely getting paid for the high-priced milk. Prices for the struggling dairymen plummeted to all-time lows, leaving many destitute and causing thousands to strike and even threaten to “blow up milk stations and milk trains.”
“Over Spilt Milk,” an online exhibit at the NY Food Museum relives the drama of a turbulent period in New York’s milk history. The well-documented tale brings to life the villains and heroes of the day. The villains included the detested “Milk Trust”—the three milk distribution giants Borden’s Condensed Milk Co., Sheffield Farms Milk Co., and United States Dairy Products Co., which controlled two-thirds of the city’s milk market. Other key players included the three-man Milk Control Board, accused by the public of favoritism and unclean ties with the milk lobby. The Milk Control Board granted milk dealer licenses and stepped in to stabilize fluctuating milk prices.
Heroes emerged from the chaos, among them community activists Meyer Parodneck and Dr. Caroline Whitney. They helped organize a milk cooperative—the Consumer-Farmer Milk Cooperative—that connected dairy farmers directly to people in New York, eliminating the need for “Milk Trust distributors.” The cooperative, formed in 1937, existed until the 1970s when it was sold by its surviving founder.
The online exhibit is filled with political cartoons and vintage photographs that bring back the tensions and passions of the time. While the narrative sometimes jumps and leaves some holes along the way, it is a riveting story of the city’s past. It’s also a harbinger of the modern community supported agriculture movement, which makes it all the more interesting.