Pasteurized Milk:
A Progressive Era food story

   Have you noticed the word pasteurized is always on the label of milk containers?  Do you know that safe milk is one of the greatest achievements of reformers during the Progressive Era?

   Here's the back story:

   Milk from cows can easily become contaminated with dangerous germs - especially the germs that cause tuberculosis (a lung disease) and typhoid fever.  Before around 1910, many thousands of children and adults died every year from diseases that spread in raw milk.

   A French doctor named Louis Pasteur discovered in the mid-1800s that heating milk to about 160 degrees for a short period of time kills the dangerous germs that can grow in milk. 

   Unfortunately, this technique of "pasteurizing" milk was not put into practice very widely.

   Jump to New York City:
   A man named Nathan Straus became a champion for pasteurization.  He was a Jewish immigrant from Germany, and built up a successful business in New York City selling china and glassware.

   Straus did so well he even became one of the owners of Macy's department store! 

   By the 1890s Straus was also devoting himself to efforts to improve life for children in the poor and crowded neighborhoods of New York City.  He was shocked by the high death rate of these children from diseases. 

   Straus and his wife began using their own money to pay for more research into pasteurization of milk.  This research proved that making milk safe would save thousands of children's lives. 

   The Straus family paid for programs to encourage the use of pasteurized milk in New York and other big cities.  The effort soon attracted others, including medical experts, who began pushing for laws to require pasteurization of milk.

   Success at last:

   In 1907, with the Progressive Movement in full swing, President Theodore Roosevelt asked a federal government office to look into the issue.  The Public Health Service made its report the next year.  It said that pasteurization would save many lives.  A few milk companies were already using the technique, but others objected to attempts to pass a law about it.

   An epidemic of typhoid fever in 1913 finally convinced New York City officials to pass a law requiring milk to be pasteurized.  Within a few years, most other large cities passed similar laws.  The effect was immediate.  Many fewer children were dying from diseases linked to bad milk.

   Today, national laws require all milk sold in the U.S. to be pasteurized, and milk is one of the very safest foods. 

   Below:  This photo from 1910 shows a dairy operation with equipment installed for pasteurizing milk.



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Milk bottle photo by David Burns, from the
vintage milk bottle collection of Jeanne Burns.
All other photos are from the Library of Congress.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright 2009, 2014 by David Burns.  All rights reserved.  As a guide to the Virginia Standards of Learning, some pages necessarily include phrases or sentences from that document, which is available online from the Virginia Department of Education.  The author's copyright extends to the original text and graphics, unique design and layout, and related material.