Excerpt: The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902

The following is an excerpt from The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902: Immigrant Housewives and the Riots That Shook New York City by Scott D. Seligman (Potomac Books, 2020).

Six: As Scarce around Essex Street as Ham Sandwiches

“When the holidays of the feast of Passover have ended next week, 150 to 200 meat markets on the East Side will go out of business,” the president of the East Side Hebrew Retail Butchers’ Kosher Guarantee and Benevolent Association, which represented the neighborhood’s kosher butchers, predicted on April 17, 1902.

The Lower East Side butchers were hurting, and more than their nonkosher counterparts. Citywide, sales of kosher meat had plummeted from six hundred thousand pounds a week to about half that amount. Even at sixteen cents a pound there was no profit in meat, and most, if they were selling at all, were doing so at a loss.

“Three months ago my sales amounted to $55 a day,” Max Rosen of Ludlow Street reported. “Today I have sold $1.90 worth of meat.” And Jacob Bacharach, who operated on Hester Street, complained that he had not sold any meat in more than a week.

But the poor were hurting even more. The papers were full of poignant stories. “The sights to be seen at some of the small butcher shops are pathetic,” the New York Tribune wrote. “Women whose husbands allow them 30 or 40 cents a day to provide the family food for the day wistfully price the different scraps of meat and bone, trying to find some piece so undesirable that their scanty funds can secure it. The refuse in the shops is greedily snapped up at from ten to fifteen cents a pound. Women hasten back to the tenements closely grasping the few ounces of meat they have secured. Even the children are sent out to haggle with dealers in the hope of getting better terms.”

The New York World published the plaintive story of a babushkaclad woman with an infant in her arms and three other children in tow. Her Essex Street butcher was now obliged to charge her seventeen cents a pound for a piece of soup meat. She had gone into his shop to plead for a dime’s worth of scraps to make a broth for her consumptive husband.

“The attitude of the East Side to this situation is one of protest—not violent, for the people are too used to oppression to be deeply moved,” the Tribune observed. “The factory work man who has had meat for one meal in the day will be obliged to subsist without it. Men are working 14 and 16 hours a day in factories and in sweatshops and subsisting from week’s end to week’s end without meat. Canned goods to some extent supply the place. Vegetables are introduced into the meager bill of fare, but East Side vegetables are neither very fresh, since they come from pushcarts, nor likely in the long run to be very healthful.”

At least one manufacturer of processed foods saw opportunity in the crisis. The Quaker Oats Company took out advertisements in the Yiddish press touting the health benefits of rolled oats. “If you begin the day with Quaker Oats you’ll work better, sleep better and be in the best health and spirits,” it told Jewish readers in an ad entitled “Stop! Don’t Eat Meat for Breakfast,” though it’s far from clear how many Jewish families actually were eating meat for breakfast.

New York’s Jewish butchers had actually seen this problem coming since at least 1896, when their association, formed to represent the interests of the kosher butchers to the slaughterhouses and the speculators, first passed resolutions condemning the emerging “Beef Trust,” a term by which they meant local abattoirs. The association president at the time had told the Tribune that prices had risen as a result of collusion among these slaughterhouses. The five hundred butchers he represented had been refused an explanation for the hike. They believed the slaughterhouses were not only fixing prices, but also planning to dispense with competition by dividing the local butchers among themselves and permitting each to buy from only one house.

By 1902 New York was home to three principal kosher slaughterhouses: Schwarzschild & Sulzberger, United Dressed Beef, and, to a lesser extent, Joseph Stern & Sons.7 All three were German-J ewish owned, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the rabbi at Henry Street’s B’nai B’rith Synagogue, who complained to the World that “if they have conspired against the people to raise the price of meat unwarrantably, they have transgressed the teachings of their faith.” It was a shot across the bow at the likes of Ferdinand Sulzberger, Joseph L. Stern, and Isaac Blumenthal (the president of United Dressed Beef), who were suspected of being part of the conspiracy.

Meat prices had risen for everyone, of course, and the nonkosher butchers were also agitated. They mused about bypassing the Trust entirely by purchasing cattle in quantity from the West and bringing them to New York themselves. It was a naïve idea, because the Trust would never have permitted the railroads to service them, and it had the clout to impose its will. But in any event, the Hebrew butchers, whose shops were now closing at the rate of a dozen a day, were in need of more immediate remedies.

“The Jewish butchers in greater New York can no longer sustain the yoke of the armful Meat Trust,” the Orthodox Yidishes Tageblatt opined. “The Trust has taken away from them every possibility to make a living. . . . Many have had to give up their shops, and those who are still struggling are hanging by a thread.”

It was obvious the time had come for their association to take action.

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