On May 15, 1902, Jewish women on Manhattan’s Lower East side responded to a precipitous rise in the price of kosher beef with a boycott. The action soon spread to other New York boroughs and neighborhoods, with aggressive measures being used to coerce consumers to join in. Within less than a month, the so-called Meat Trust capitulated and dropped the price to near its prior levels.
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At the start of May 1902, the wholesalers who controlled the market for kosher meat raised the retail price of beef by 50 percent overnight – to 18 cents a pound from 12.
Even if immigrant Jews were beginning to give up some of their religious observances as they assimilated into American society, they often held on to kashrut, and the kosher meat trade was a big business.
The extra effort involved in supervising the kosher slaughter of animals made it inevitable that kosher meat would sell at a premium – of 5 to 6 cents – over nonkosher meat. But the industry’s monopolistic practices meant that consumers, who were almost inevitably women, could be gouged.
Actually, the first to respond to the price hike were the retail butchers. Over the course of a week they stopped selling beef in an effort to force the wholesalers to roll back the increase. The Meat Trust was unmoved and the price remained at 18 cents.
Then, on May 14, Lower East Side residents Fanny Levy and Sarah Edelson called a meeting of their neighbors around Pike and Monroe streets. They agreed on the need for coordinated action, to be centered around a boycott of the butcher shops.
Picket lines and shaming scabs
For a boycott to be successful, it had to be universal, and the action employed some of the same measures used by labor unions. Women set up picket lines outside shops; not only did they accuse customers who defied the boycott of being scabs, in some cases they tore the customers’ bags from their arms as they emerged from the stores. They also rampaged through some stores, breaking windows and burning meat.
The police responded by arresting picketers, while the press, which knew a good story when it saw one, ranged from supportive to condescendingly critical. The New York Times, for example, complained: “It will not do to have a swarm of ignorant and infuriated women going about any part of this city with petroleum destroying shops of those against whom they are angry.”
The New York Herald, on the other hand, clearly admired the effort, noting: “These women were in earnest and when they decided on action, they perfected an organization, elected officers and even went so far as to take coins from their slender purses until there was an expense fund of eighty dollars with which to carry on the fight.”
(They used the fund to pay fines and even reimburse customers whose purchases had been taken from them on the first day of the action.)
Rabbis come on board
May 17 was a Saturday, so the women visited synagogues in the striking neighborhoods – which now included Harlem and the Bronx – to encourage congregants to join the boycott and rabbis to give their official approval.
In general, the rabbis supported the action, and when, as in the case of Rabbi Adolph N. Radin, leader of the People’s Synagogue, they didn’t, the Ladies Anti-Beef Trust Association ran an ad in The Forward newspaper calling for him to be ostracized.
By May 22 the Retail Butchers Association joined the boycott of the Meat Trust, and by June 5 the Trust gave in, dropping the retail price down to 14 cents.
It didn’t take long for the price to begin creeping up, but in the following years the meat boycott served as a model for rent strikes and other actions organized by immigrant women. Many of the women involved in the 1902 meat boycott went on to help lead the labor movement.