Business | Life

Got milk? A century ago, it came from a peddler - and bring your own pitcher

By Bill Loomis / Special to The Detroit News

“Mrs. Gertrude Klinck is a milk peddler, and yesterday she left her horse wagon and cans on Russell Street while she entered a grocery store to make some purchases. She desires to know now where her horse and wagon are,” said a notice on Dec. 8, 1875 in the Detroit Free Press.

They delivered on foot or drove their horse-drawn wagons along streets, selling milk out of cans which they ladled into customers’ pitchers. The larger peddlers, called “dealers,” had multiple wagons and hired delivery men. They included companies such as Towar’s Wayne County Creamery, A. Easter, Union Creamery and more who also delivered wholesale to restaurants, ice cream parlors and grocers. Unlike trusted milkmen in their trucks, milk peddlers had a decidedly mixed reputation: colorful, cantankerous, independent, and not always honest.

Milk peddlers appeared in Detroit 10 years before the Civil War. Prior to that, 93 percent of Americans lived on farms and had their own milk cow or had a neighbor with one and usually bartered for a pitcher of milk. There was no such thing as a dairy industry. Only about 45,000 people lived in Detroit in the 1860s. But times were changing.

As the 20th century began, Detroit’s population roared ahead. The 1900 census counted 285,704 in the city. Those people had moved off farms or came from elsewhere, but most had no cows. They needed dairy products, and soon the milk peddlers filled the bill.

Milk peddlers were an independent lot. They usually owned one or more cows (in 1900 there were 15,000 cows in the city of Detroit), a horse or two, and a milk wagon which was initially an open air, flat wagon. Poorer milk peddlers were licensed as “Foot Peddlers” and they, or more commonly their children, worked the neighborhood.

Peddlers would milk their cows in the dark morning, then load the milk cans into the wagon. They then sold the milk to customers in tenements or houses on their route. When a customer needed milk, she would take her pitcher or milk jug to the curb.

The milk peddler ladled milk into her pitcher and collected the cash. Standard milk sold for about four to eight cents a quart from 1896 to 1915.

Raw milk health concerns

Part of the health concern was that this was raw milk, un-refrigerated but usually iced down, in the open air. While milk peddling was common in European cities, it was viewed with intense skepticism in the United States by health officials as the age of food science and interest in food-borne illnesses was picking up steam.

Deaths from typhoid, intestinal diseases, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and pulmonary tuberculosis were frequent when water and food were germ-laden. Milk was of prime concern since it carried bacteria that could lead to these diseases and more.

A fairly common illness for people then was known as “milksick,” also called the “slows” or “trembles.” Abraham Lincoln’s mother died from this in Illinois. A popular explanation was that it resulted from drinking milk of cows that ate white snakeroot weed. While the real cause of milksick is still debated, it likely came from milk held in unsanitary conditions. A milk peddler’s hands were typically unwashed, ladling raw, un-pasteurized milk from open cans exposed on his wagon.

The biggest danger was to bottle-fed infants. Breast feeding was recommended but not always understood, even by doctors and nurses. Mothers sometimes fed babies condensed milk, which quickly gave infants rickets, according to an article in the Detroit Medical Journal in January 1913. When breast milk did not appear immediately after a baby’s birth, many mothers and doctors assumed something was wrong.

Colustrum, which was exactly what new infants required, looked unusual, so some new mothers decided against breast feeding. The alternative was hiring a wet nurse, who might produce too much milk too fast for newborns, or bottle-fed milk.

The results were devastating: according to a report in the Detroit Medical Journal, in 1913, 80 percent of babies who died in the clinic at Detroit’s Children’s Free Hospital expired from gastro-intestinal troubles.

It didn’t help that many milk peddlers promoted “baby’s milk” or “nursery milk” to young mothers, which was usually milk from Jersey cows with higher butter fat or sometimes was just plain raw milk, both harmful to newborns.

Milk adulteration suspected

Along with issues of sanitation, milk peddlers were suspected of “adulterating” milk by adding substances to make the milk look richer, like chalk, or “white earth” gypsum. Here is a Detroit Free Press report from August 8, 1879:

Startling Disclosures.

A Milk Peddler’s Infamous Adulterations.

Last Monday an indignant citizen brought to police headquarters a considerable quantity of a substance closely resembling, in its damp state, white paint. He informed Superintendent Rogers that the substance was the settlings of his day’s supply of milk, and he had no doubt that his milkman was guilty of adulterating the milk that he peddled.

Other milk peddlers were accused of cheating by watering down the milk as in this courtroom encounter captured by the Free Press on September 26, 1888.


August Rahn Pays a fine of $40 in Police Court

August Rahn, a milk peddler, was at the police court yesterday for the second time to answer for a charge of selling watered milk. … The milk inspector said the first sample of Rahn’s milk showed thirteen percent of water and the last one showed fourteen percent.

“How’s this Mr. Rahn?” asked Justice Miner. “You’re progressing the wrong way.”

“I know nodings vhat he say,” replied the milkman.

“He says you are putting water in your milk.”

“Vell, everybody knows there is vater in all milk,” was the reply.

“Yes,” said the court. “But he has a machine in his office that tells when someone puts too much water in.”

“I tink he fix it oop. I no trust him. He all time after poor man and let the rich ones go.”

In one notorious scandal that included Towar’s Creamery, one of Detroit’s big milk dealers, formaldehyde was added to milk to preserve its freshness. In fairness, the peddlers bought the formaldehyde in bottles from Chicago firms like the Preservaline Manufacturing Company, where it was promoted as a safe additive and sold as “milksweet” or “freezine.” Apparently there was so much freezine in the milk people could smell it from the pitchers. It didn’t enhance peddlers’ reputations.

Milk peddler in 1930

A milk peddler fills a customer’s jug with milk in 1930. (Detroit News archive)

Milk inspectors hired

While most peddlers were honest, it was up to the city milk inspectors to track down the miscreants. At first the inspectors were usually police sergeants. At the turn of the century, Detroit had only two milk inspectors to cover milk delivered by more than 300 peddlers. But the police inspectors were replaced in 1901 by a new style of inspector, a medical doctor who knew the importance of safe, wholesome milk. His name was Dr. William H. Price.

Price worked with a second inspector, Dr. L. Stuart, running up and down the alleys, tracking down peddlers and taking milk samples to the chemist Tibbals’ laboratory for testing on the “lactometer,” which measured the cream density in the milk and would tell them if water had been added. They inspected stalls where cows were milked, called “milking parlors”; they went into groceries, restaurants, and backyard milk sheds, where cows stood in filth with pigs and chickens. Price went after them all.

Peddlers didn’t appreciate having their milk rejected by inspectors. The Detroit News reported in 1928:”… A farmer in Macomb County got mad because this man sent his milk back, and was going to give him a licking. But the inspector said: ‘Just a minute. Before you go any further, I want you to know that I was one of the best heavyweights in Canada. I don’t want you to start anything you can’t finish.’

“The farmer thought things over and put his coat back on. Since that time, he has become a good friend of the inspector.”

At the turn of the century, big national companies began to finance factories to produce canned condensed milk, a process which was begun by entrepreneur Gail Borden and led to Borden’s milk. At the same time the big Detroit milk dealers united to become even bigger.

The Detroit Creamery Company formed in 1897, and by 1916 built a beautiful state-of-the-art dairy and horse stable at Grand River and Cass Avenue, designed by no less an architect than Albert Kahn.

Peddlers form union

Milk peddlers organized to combat large business concerns from building more processing plants, controlling prices, and taking over their routes to drive them out of work. In 1903 the milk peddlers officially formed a union called the “Milk Peddlers and Helpers Union.” Peddlers who owned more than one wagon were ineligible for membership.

Their first order of business was to try to stop Sunday deliveries. They delivered milk 365 days a year and wanted a day off each week. Those peddlers who bought milk from Towar’s Creamery or Detroit Creamery were told by George W. Towar that he had no objection but they would need to work all day and night on Saturday.

Over time the big dealers were prevailing. Detroit Creamery Company had the largest dairy processing plant in the state and was considered by many to be the cleanest plant in the country. Every day 303 wagons with teams of horses left their plant and made a total of 50,000 stops, selling more than 20,000 gallons of milk. By 1916 they began using motor trucks for wholesale deliveries.

Towar’s Wayne County Creamery at Grand River and Henry likewise advertised their large, well ventilated milking parlor, called the “Sunshine Plant,” from light that poured in on the cows through tall windows.

In the meantime, Price and his boss, Detroit Health Officer Dr. Guy L. Kiefer, pressed on with cleaning up the milk supply. Kiefer wrote in 1908 that 65 percent of all Detroit school children suffered from disease, a common statistic in all big American cities. One-third of all high school kids were plagued by hearing or vision problems, and headaches were common, according to “A Stuffed Club: A Journal of Rational Therapeutics,” by Henry Tilden, 1908. The gloves were off. Improving the city’s milk was at top of their list of health issues.

They passed a series of ordinances. The peddlers fought every one. The first was a license: in 1897 anyone selling milk in Detroit had to have a license displayed on his or her wagon. Foot peddlers wore a badge. The milk peddlers turned up at Detroit Common Council to intimidate and shout down the proposal, but the council stood firm. Next, Price ordered all milk to be labeled on the milk can, especially skimmed milk.

To further reduce airborne germs, milk bottles appeared in the 1880s in New York City and were soon advertised in Detroit. They were an improvement over the open air cans, but also caused their own health concerns: milk bottles were being refilled without being washed, let alone scrubbed, boiled, and sterilized. Bottles were an expense and a constant irritant to the milk peddlers, who accused housewives of hoarding the bottles for their own purposes.

Another ordinance in 1904 required peddlers to ice their milk: no milk over fifty degrees could be sold. The peddlers balked at the price for coolers and ice.

Milk inspection excerpt

Below is an excerpt from a state inspection report of milk peddlers in Detroit in July 1904. The “grades” listed in the report refer to the breed of cows in the dairy:

At Detroit:

L. Cheimba — Number of cows, 12; condition, fair; feed, swill; stables, close, wet and filthy, foul in every particular, no light; ventilation, none; no yard; water, city. Retails from wagons. Durham grades.

J. Gorski — Number of cows, 8; condition, fair; feed, hay and will; stables, damp and foul, no light, no ventilation, no yard; water, city. Retails; no cooler. Mixed grades.

Dr. Price insisted that all milking parlors must have a concrete floor with proper drainage and ventilation. This was way beyond the means of most backyard city dairies, but Price was not through. Land in the city was skyrocketing. More and more milk came from outside Detroit. Cities such as Royal Oak, Ann Arbor, Chelsea, Birmingham, Farmington, Northville, Pontiac, Clarenceville, Belleville and Romulus were all providing milk from dairy farms. It was also perceived as healthier than city dairy milk.

New York dealt with city “swill milk,” which was contaminated milk from cows fed “brewery slops” or “swill,” the grain left over from breweries. Detroit reported instances of swill milk and had several court cases of cows fed hotel garbage or even pickles.

The milk from outside Detroit came in by train, usually arriving between 9 p.m. and midnight. The peddlers would transfer it to their wagons from 2-4:30 in the morning. Health officials concluded that this made inspection from farm to home impossible for city officials even when supported by county and state health organizations.

Pasteurization — the new process of heating and then cooling milk to kill harmful micro-organisms — was the only answer, according inspector Price, and he wanted every drop of milk in Michigan to be pasteurized.

Price was promoted to city Health Officer in 1913. He hammered hard for pasteurization and in 1916 Michigan became the first state in the U.S. to mandate that all milk be pasteurized. By 1921 the health department announced that baby death rates from diarrhea and enteritis in the city of Detroit had dropped by half, from 48.6 to 21.6 per 1,000 births. They attributed it to pasteurization and improved milk facilities and supply.

Milk peddlers were gradually referred to as milkmen and their lives improved as well. The City Council passed an ordinance in 1935 forbidding milk delivery on Sundays. The Detroit News reported: “Speaking for the milkmen’s wives, Mrs. Bernard Miller, wrote: ‘The Present Council will be remembered by milkmen and their wives for its consideration of their welfare. The public never considered the difficulties of the milkman’s life.’ “