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It's what's for dinner

Dec 2, 2011 12:25 PM | 0 comments

"Amid wild scenes of face-slapping and hair-pulling, police today quelled a stampede among 3,000 women fighting for places in line... The line had formed as early as 1:30 a.m... some women brought their lunches, their knitting, and their babies."

It may sound like the standard consumer zealotry we're accustomed to hearing about this time of the year, as usually sane citizens spend their Thanksgiving vacation camped out for hours, or days, in front of retail stores in hopes of snagging deals on big-screen TVs, videogame systems, and other toys... the kinds of products they'd enjoy at home, if they were there.  But no, this is not a description of the now-typical Black Friday bargain-hunter brawls that overtake the aisles of otherwise tranquil shopping centers.  Printed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in June of 1946, this is a rundown of the desperate measures Brooklyn housewives would take to get their hands on a product that most of us take for granted.  What was the hot-ticket item that dragged them out of bed in the wee hours of the morning?


Even though the war, with its attendant deprivations, was over, throughout 1946 meat was a hard-won item on America's dinner plate.  Since World War II the federal Office of Price Adminstration (OPA) had been imposing price ceilings on consumer goods in an effort to quell inflation.  The ceilings were popular with much of the public, which appreciated  affordable staples like meat, eggs, and milk, but they were increasingly unpopular with the producers of those goods, who argued that they couldn't turn a profit under the government restrictions.  To protest the price controls, meat packers staged a slowdown in production, refusing to slaughter and ship the meat that fed the nation, until price ceilings were removed.  

As meat supplies dwindled, the borough's collective stomach rumbled.  Brooklyn's Fort Greene Retail Meat Market, at 174 Fort Greene Place (now home to a different kind of market, the Atlantic Center Mall), slaughtered its own meat, and throughout that year was often one of the only places borough residents could get the porterhouse steaks, lamb shoulders, and beef livers for which their families clamored.

Above, on June 6, 1946, shoppers vied to get a piece of a shipment of 30,000 pounds of meat that the Fort Greene Retail Meat Market managed to bring in, despite nationwide shortages.  Police were called in that day at about 9 a.m. to restore order to a crowd of over 3,000 restless shoppers, below, waiting for their turn at the butcher's block.  "To add to the excitement," wrote the Eagle, "someone yelled 'Murder!' at the height of the disorder and others took up the cry."

The powers of the OPA were set to expire on June 30, 1946, unless Congress passed an extension.  This was easier said than done; an extension bill put forward in the Senate proposed a much-weakened OPA that would ease price controls and, according to a June 10th Eagle editorial, cost consumers an additional $2 billion in the following six to nine months.  After heated debate in the Senate, which included a futile eight-hour filibuster by anti-OPA Texas Senator W. Lee O'Daniel, the extension of the OPA passed.  On June 29th the Eagle all but guaranteed readers that President Truman would sign the bill into law, while this less reassuring headline ran alongside:

To the surprise of many, President Truman vetoed the OPA extension bill on the grounds that it did not give the agency adequate power and would "legalize inflation and bring economic disaster to the nation."  It was hoped that Congress would act quickly to push through a new bill restoring the OPA to its former strength, but that effort was blocked by -- you guessed it -- Senator O'Daniel.  At midnight on June 30th, all OPA price controls expired.  The beef industry was quick to capitalize on the increased profit potential, and by July 2nd, Brooklyn was back in the meat, but at prices that alarmed many shoppers.

"Despite the price hike," the Eagle reported on July 2nd, "the rush at the market was as great as ever.  Up to noon 1,000 persons had been served.  The line started forming at 4 a.m.  Many of the early arrivals were drenched by rain, but they refused to yield their places."  Prices eased down by the next week as meat from the revived Chicago stockyards trickled into Brooklyn.  The black market for beef, which had flourished under the OPA price ceiling system, quickly dissipated as supplies flooded the city.

Above, an image from the Eagle, July 10, 1946, with the caption: "Scarce no more -- Yes, folks, that's beef and there's plenty of it at the Fort Greene Retail Meat Market."  A spokesman from the Unity Meat Market, at 125 Smith Street, remarked to the Eagle on July 7th that, "The death of the OPA was the best thing that could happen in our business."

But not everyone was ecstatic about the newly unfettered meat market, and consumers moved quickly to push back against rising prices.  On July 18th, 150 housewives and veterans paraded down DeKalb Avenue, between Sumner and Throop Avenues, announcing a boycott on new meat prices with punny slogans like "Meat may be nice but we won't meet the price," and "We refuse to swallow hamburger at $1 a pound."  According to the Eagle, "they succeeded in keeping shoppers out of seven butcher stores.  Poultry shops, not included in the boycott, did a landslide business."  

Several other organizations rallied with the housewives, including the local chapter of the American Veterans Committee, whose chairman, a young Howard Zinn, declared, "We are now engaged in another grim war which must be won if the first victory is to be of any significance."  More rallies followed; July 23rd was the first of several "buy nothing days" staged by a citywide consumer strike committee.  On August 1st Coney Island shoppers picketed along Mermaid Avenue and that same day Mayor O'Dwyer himself endorsed the boycott efforts.  The Brooklyn Buyers Strike Committee declared a meat boycot for the entire week of August 12th to 20th. 

Their efforts were rewarded, albeit inadequately, when a revived OPA bill was finally pushed through the legislature.  Price ceilings on meat and other staples went back into effect in early September, and the wearying cycle immediately started all over again.  Meat supplies dried up.  Black markets sprang up with pocket-gouging prices.  Long lines formed outside the Fort Green Retail Meat Market which was, again, the only game in town. 

Look familiar?  Brooklynites wait patiently to get inside the Fort Greene Retail Meat Market, where on October 2nd crowds swelled to 5,000 hungry shoppers.

The Eagle ran this picture on October 13th, lamenting the plight of these cattle who had "nothing to do and no purpose in life" while another meat industry slowdown kept beef off the market. 

The seesaw of feast and famine finally came to an end in mid-October.  President Truman, "under severe political pressure from Republicans and members of his own party who have bombarded the White House for relief from the meat shortage," according to the Eagle, announced his decision to lift controls on the price of meat completely.  Once again, the floodgates were opened and meat poured into Brooklyn's markets.  The Eagle snapped this shot of Dave Ershowsky, owner of the Harvey Beef Company at 201 Fort Greene Place, standing forlornly in an empty meat cooler on October 15th...  

...and came back the next day to capture a still-low-key Ershowsky posing with his just-arrived 15-ton shipment of prime beef.


Another price hike followed, but by the end of the month, as the beef supply evened out, prices again came down, although not as low as the OPA ceiling prices shoppers had once enjoyed.  While the housewives and consumer groups had lost their fight to keep meat prices in check, they did strike a parting jab against the meat industry -- by the end of October, meat markets complained of an overabundance of beef that customers were unwilling to buy.  As Eagle reporter J. A. Livingston described it in his "Business Outlook" column on October 27th, "OPA decontrols meat prices, beef flows to market, and overnight Mrs. Housewife decides she'd rather save the bank account than buy red meat."  Maybe familiarity bred contempt?