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When the Boro's Milk Vanished

Jan 11, 2011 11:45 AM | 2 comments

In the early 1950s, with post-war families booming across the United States, no single food item may have been as important as milk.  This was certainly the case in Brooklyn, where milk was needed to feed infants and supply children with necessary nutrients.  Milk was even a key ingredient in many housewives' favorite recipes--everything from meatloaf to tuna casserole to chicken pot pies to pound cake needed milk!

Demand for milk was so high that dairies had production and distribution plants right here in the borough.  Borden's, Sheffield's and other familiar names were responsible for not only supplying every corner store and supermarket, but also for delivering milk daily to most households.  Families relied on this door-to-door service--there was always milk in the house. 

But on October 26, 1953, when 13,000 milk plant employees and deliverymen went on strike, all of that changed.  Suddenly, the bottling, distribution and delivery of milk came to a halt.  The importance of milk was so great that the strike made the Eagle headline:

Eagle Headline, October 26, 1953.

The union had responsibly promised to continue service to those most in need--schools, hospitals and military bases--but everyone else was out of luck.

Knowing that a strike was possible, some families had begun to stockpile milk at home prior to the 26th.  This run on milk meant that by the time the strike actually began, stores and supermarkets were already displaying signs saying, "Sorry, no milk."  Early shoppers frantically grabbed the last few bottles left in their neighborhood stores.

Lucky housewives celebrate their good fortune in finding milk at a nearby supermarket.  Eagle, 1953.

The only remaining option was to purchase milk straight from the distributors.  Each morning, lines formed outside of distribution plants while picketers marched alongside.  On October 27 (the second day), a line of 3,500 people formed outside of the Borden's plant at 85 3rd Avenue.  Some waited up to three hours in the pouring rain to purchase just a single bottle of milk (the day's allotment per family) at the usual price of 23 cents. 

Families waited up to three hours outside Borden's Dairy.  Eagle, 1953.

That same day, the Eagle published advice about milk substitutes on the front page: "Sweetened condensed milk, nonfat dry milk solids and evaporated milk may all be substituted for fresh fluid milk," wrote the Eagle's food editor and "expert."  Meanwhile, other Eagle reports were warning that stores were already running low on substitute products too.

Walking the picket line outside of Borden's Dairy. Eagle, 1953.Each morning those families who ran out of milk scrambled to find a store or plant that still had a supply.  Families feared the worst, as reports from the contract negotiations were anything but promising.  The union was standing strong in their demand for a $15-per-week raise.  There were rumors that deliverymen represented by the union who had vowed to work were receiving threats of violence from their colleagues.  Luckily, no reports indicate that actions actually reached that level.


Finally, on November 2, the strike came to an end.  It had been only six days, but the impact had been felt.  The city's supply of milk and milk substitutes was practically depleted.  There was no time to lose in starting up business.
Borden began distributing milk immediately after the contract was signed.  Eagle, 1953.
As the Eagle noted, "The ink on the contract was hardly dry before the city's supply of milk began moving."  Or did they mean, "mooooooving"?


1/11/2011 1:00:04 PM #

Good thing they back to work in November 1953. I was born in March 1954. Very interesting article.

Mary Lu Hayes

1/11/2011 4:14:29 PM #

Terrific article Leslie. And now as mrsmoo, growing up in BKLYN at that time, I can attest to that.

judith walsh