New York Daily News
KOSHER MEAT WAR!
Lower East Side women took to streets in 1902 in beef over prices, sparking 20th century social justice battles
Sarah Edelson had a beef with her butcher. The week before, a pound of kosher meat sold for 12 cents a pound. Now, the thief wanted 18 cents. A decent-sized brisket cost a dollar.
A bargain today, but in the spring of 1902, on the Lower East Side, men were lucky to bring home $2 a day. Their wives could stretch paychecks, but not this far.
So Edelson and her neighbors took their outrage to the streets. And Scott D. Seligman’s “The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902” covers all the bloody battles and social breakthroughs their fight wrought.
At its core, it’s the story of a clash between two forces. And anyone dumb enough to battle an army of Jewish mothers, well, they get what they deserve. On one side, were the enraged immigrant women, many barely able to speak English but already learning the language of protest. Opposing them? Monopolizing Midwestern meat packers.
The so-called “Meat Trust” was created by two powerful, 19th century innovations, the railroad and refrigeration. Originally, cattle were driven to market, slaughtered onsite, and sold. It was a straightforward yet inefficient method. Animals died en route. Supply was hard to control.
However, with iceboxes and refrigerated train cars, animals could be taken to a central location, butchered and shipped anywhere in the country. Meat packer Gustavus Franklin Swift pioneered the practice. His five biggest rivals followed.
Instead of competing, they decided to work together, secretly agreeing on what they would pay ranchers and charge butchers. Limits on supply were set, too, guaranteed to drive up demand and prices.
They became rump roast robber barons, and their influence was immense. These six, marveled muckraker Charles Edward Russell, had “greater fortunes and greater power than 10 Standard Oil Companies.”
So, in 1902, when the cost of a live steer went from 5½ cents to 7 cents a pound, the Meat Trust WWraised its prices drastically. They were now paying nearly 30% extra for beef? Well then, consumers would pay 50% more at the butchers.
Until the women of the Lower East Side had something to say.
There were plenty of them. While the meat packers were changing the way America shopped, immigrants had been changing the way America looked. Nearly 12 million people had arrived between 1871 and 1901. Many of the poorest settled on the Lower East Side and many of them were Jewish and kept kosher.
When the price of beef rose, it hurt.
“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,” reported the New York Tribune. “The sights to be seen at some of the small butcher shops are pathetic. Women whose husbands allow them 30 or 40 cents to provide the family food for the day wistfully price the different scraps of meat and bone, trying to find some piece so undesirable their scanty funds can secure it.”
Edelson, the kosher meat war’s ringleader, was better off than most. She and her husband had a neighborhood bar, the Monroe Palace. She also picked up extra money as a matchmaker. But Edelson was outraged at the price gouging and not about to keep silent.
She placed an ad in the Yiddish papers, announcing a May 14 meeting to discuss what could be done. She hoped to assemble 50 people. Instead, 500 crammed into the bar, with even more filling the street. Tempers flared, with local butchers bearing the brunt of the anger.
“Burn down their shops!” one woman shouted.
A calmer course was charted. Committees were formed. A manifesto was written — “With our money, the butchers buy diamonds” — and sent off to the printers. And a decision was made: Until the price of meat returned to 12 cents a pound, no butcher would make a single sale.
The women of the Lower East Side would see to it.
The next morning, 3,000 protesters were out in force, blocking the neighborhood’s butcher shops. When one woman pushed past to buy a chuck steak, other women grabbed it, threw it in the gutter, and chased her down the street. Some butchers were beaten.
The police arrived, swinging billy clubs at the women. Outraged residents leaned out their windows and pelted the cops with plates, flat irons, bricks.
“In the 25-30 years since this area was settled,” reported The
Forward, “there has never been a scene such as we have seen here today.”
City Magistrate Robert C. Cornell’s court was soon crammed with dozens of defiant defendants. “You’re not allowed to make riots in the streets!” Cornell shouted at one woman. “If we cry at home, nobody will see us,” Rebecca Ablowitz calmly replied. “We have to help ourselves.”
Women were fined and — if they couldn’t pay — sent to jail. As the instigator of these “wicked riots,” Edelson was fined $10. She paid and left and quickly organized another meeting for that evening. The 10-cent admission would help establish a bail fund.
This time, 5,000 people showed up. An additional 15,000 angry protesters filled the streets. The police arrived, again, and shut down the entire Lower East Side.
When policemen roughly dragged off a 14-year-old girl, however, the mob erupted. They destroyed butcher shops and broke into apartments. If they found someone eating meat, they threw it out the window. One woman grabbed a hunk of raw liver and started slapping a cop in the face with it.
The police answered with clubs, then fire hoses.
One bystander ran into a store and phoned the New York World, begging the paper to dispatch reporters. “The police are killing people down here,” he shouted. Police grabbed him, beat him, and hauled him off to jail, too. The mob finally dispersed around midnight.
The next day, Edelson was unbowed. “We will win this strike,” she told a reporter from the Brooklyn Eagle. “We won’t quit.”
She laughed at the butchers’ charge that the protesters were a bunch of anarchists.
“You never saw a woman with a husband and half a dozen children who was an anarchist,” Edelson said. “We’re just human beings who are sick of being robbed.”
She announced plans to broaden the boycott to delicatessens. Similar movements soon erupted in Harlem, Newark and Boston.
Meanwhile, federal and state authorities were already investigating the real villains – the Meat Trust. Injunctions were finally issued, prohibiting the big meat-packers from colluding. Reluctantly, they began to lower their prices. Beleaguered butchers soon followed suit.
When shops started selling a pound of beef for 15 cents, instead of 18, the fire began to go out of the movement. The boycott ended.
Besides, the Lower East Side women soon had other things to worry about — like a spike in rents. Landlords were charging $10 a month for apartments that once went for $7.50. New organizers arose. Committees were formed. Rent strikes were called.
The women didn’t know it, but it was the beginning of the 20th century’s long list of social justice battles for workers’ benefits, suffrage, civil rights. They would be fought with the methods of the meat war, too — public outreach, economic boycotts, massive demonstrations. They would change the face of America.
And they all began with one woman’s anger at the price of brisket.