No Use Crying Over Spilt Milk

How watered down milk showcased the power of women

In 1918 New Orleans all people wanted was a nice clean glass of milk. Unfortunately, the milk men had other plans for the milk of New Orleans. In 1918 the State board of health found over 141 dairy dealers were mishandling their milk supplies. Many dairymen in the area had been watering down milk. It was found that some milk was watered down so much that almost half of the liquid in the bottle was water. Along with watering down their milk to make a greater profit, dairymen also neglected to make sure their milk was clean. Much of the milk in New Orleans had sediment in it. Not only is watered down and impure milk a threat to the pocketbooks of New Orleans residents, it is also a threat to the health of the New Orleans population.

Milk Sediment Standard
A postcard ca. 1944, showing the sediment standard eventually developed for milk.

In the early 1900s milk was starting to travel farther from the dairy farm to consumers in cities. Milk at this time became more of a threat to public health. As risks of consuming milk increased with longer time spans between collection and consumption, allowing time for bacterial growth, methods to maintain safety with milk struggled to keep up. Pasteurization was a new process and not very widely used. Movements towards preventive hygiene practices attempted to find methods to keep milk a safe beverage to consume. It was seen as vital that milk be safe from bacteria because it is a staple in the diet of those who were sick, elderly, or infants at the time. Adding water to milk alters the nutritional value contained in the milk. This creates a risk because for infants, elderly, or the sick, milk may be the main source of nutrition in their diet. When this source is less nutritious than it is meant to be, because of the additional water, consumers may become malnourished, harming their health. Water added to milk by rogue dairymen may also allow the introduction of water borne germs or harmful diseases such as typhoid. In fact, a few years prior in 1911, numerous typhoid deaths in infants were traced back to contaminated milk supplies.

Unsurprisingly, the idea of their infants dying due to impure milk did not appeal to many of the women of New Orleans. The Housewives League of New Orleans took a strong interest in preventing the watering down and dirtying of milk in the time. The Housewives League was a national organization founded in 1913 that centered around the consumer rights movement. Focused on socialist and reformist ideology, the Housewives league was a consumer advocacy group made up largely of middle and upper middle class white women that fought for better prices and better qualities for home goods such as food.

Housewives League Car
Housewives League Car between ca. 1915-1920

The New Orleans chapter of the League in 1918 was heavily focused on improving the purity of milk. At the time the only punishment to dairy men who watered down their milk was a fine. This fine was small enough that the dairy men made a greater profit by watering down the milk than they were having to pay as a consequence. Thus, most dairy men were not deterred by this fine. The Housewives League of New Orleans, along with other progressive reformers in the area, fought to raise the fine to an amount that would actually deter dairy men from watering down their milk. They also fought to create a prison sentence for those that watered down milk. Along with these fights for greater punishment, they fought to get a standard set for milk quality so that dairymen had something to adhere to legally. A list of dairy men who had been dealing in impure milk was sent to the District Attorney of the time in an effort to raise his awareness of the individuals committing these crimes.

The involvement of the Housewives League of New Orleans in the milk crisis in 1918 New Orleans speaks to the larger movement of women’s increasing involvement in politics in New Orleans and America at the time. This occurred at the same time that the women’s suffrage was gaining ground. The Housewives League’s impact in New Orleans highlights the rise of progressive women’s organizations in the southern areas of America at the time. The reaction to the issues of impure milk also speaks to the budding movement towards food regulation in America. Just twelve years prior in 1906, the Pure Food And Drugs Act was passed. This marked the beginning of a movement towards regulating the safety and quality of food products in America. New Orleans’ issues with impure milk in 1918 showcase people starting to focus on the standards needed for food products as well as the increasing risks associated with the new ways of consuming food products with increasing industrialization.

Women Will Take Hand in Ending Bad Milk Sales.png

Works Cited

Burks, Jesse D. “Clean Milk and Public Health.” The Annals of the American Academy of

Political and Social Science, vol. 37, no. 2, Mar. 1911, pp. 192–206.

George Grantham Bain Collection. Housewives’ League Car. between ca.1915 and

ca.1920. Glass Negative. Lib. of Cong., Washington D.C. Lib. of Cong. Web. 16

Nov. 2018

Gessler, Anne M.”Warriors for Lower Prices: The New Orleans Housewives’ League and

the Consumer Cooperative Movement, 1913–1921.” Journal of Southern History,

vol. 83 no. 3, 2017, pp. 573-616. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/soh.2017.0163

“Heat Treatments and Pasteurization.” Milk Facts,

“Malted Milk, Sandy Milk.” Paleogreetings, 24 Nov. 2014,

Miller, Michael. “Recent Additions.” Miller Antiques,

“Wants Prison Term for Watering Milk.” Times Picayune, 21 Nov. 1918.

“Women Take Hand in Ending Bad Milk Sales.” Times Picayune, 26 Nov. 1918, p. 10.

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