The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902: Immigrant Housewives and the Riots That Shook New York City
“The victories of the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement, and the triumphs of progressives throughout the 20th century find their origin in the housewives of the Lower East Side and the battle for affordable kosher meat.”
Elementary economics offers a buyer and a seller the opportunity to make an exchange. The seller has a commodity or service the buyer wants to purchase. But what shall be the price? It depends on supply and demand. Modern commerce, however, is far more complicated than this simplistic model, especially if there are multiple sellers who decide they do not want to compete for potential buyers. Instead, they want to cooperate in setting a fixed price that assures them of substantial profits.
A perfect historical example of the complexity of the marketplace is the little-known meat boycott of 1902, a story marvelously told in this new book by Scott D. Seligman. The six major meat suppliers in Chicago decided to sell kosher beef at agreed-to prices to New York City Jews and other recent immigrants to America who settled on the East Coast. The suppliers could not compete on quality because kosher meat was regulated by the detailed laws set forth in the Talmud. They formed the Beef Trust and uniformly raised their prices. Wholesalers passed on the price increase to the hundreds of New York City kosher butchers, who, in turn, increased the retail price.
For the women of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the price of beef was a significant part of their weekly budget, and they could not substitute non-kosher cuts of meat. To the surprise of the retail butchers—not to mention their husbands—the women organized what Seligman calls the Great Kosher Meat War. They would boycott the butchers who raised their prices.
Seligman draws a splendid picture of life in the New World for these emigres from Poland, Lithuania, and the Pale of Russia. They formed associations, elected leaders, and in response to the increase in prices, led what they called “strikes,” finding inspiration in the labor unions of the 19th century. Seligman uses as his primary resource the many Yiddish newspapers that were published daily. Each of those papers had their own take on the unrest that developed.
The women tried first to persuade the butchers not to raise their prices, but that proved unavailing. The women’s families needed kosher meat, but meat had become unaffordable. Butchers who did not accede to the women’s demands were subjected to an onslaught of rocks and bricks that smashed front windows. Thousands of women filled the streets. Destruction of property and violence was frequent and common. Women would spoil the butchers’ stock of meat with kerosene and harass the women who would dare to purchase the overpriced meat. Police used their nightsticks to keep order, but without much success.
Seligman‘s narrative explains how the Meat War evolved. The women attempted to use community rabbis to aid their movement, but the clerics did little to assist the effort. The activists called on the politicians who would need their votes for help. The one assistance they did receive was from federal government that filed an antitrust suit against the Beef Trust. Ultimately, however, it was the solidarity of the housewives that prevailed.
The great kosher meat war became a model of how ordinary people could accomplish extraordinary things through organizing. The strategy became a template for responding to rent increases in New York City only a few years later. When the meat industry yet again raised prices for kosher products, the women took to the streets and prevailed. The victories of the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement, and the triumphs of progressives throughout the 20th century find their origin in the housewives of the Lower East Side and the battle for affordable kosher meat.