This Day in Jewish History: New York Philanthropist Found Guilty of Feeding Diluted Milk to Children

Nathan Straus, owner of Macy’s, was first to realize that pasteurization could save lives, and is credited with slashing the mortality rate among children

David Green
David B. Green
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Co-owner of Macy’s and philanthropist Nathan Straus, in 1920.
Co-owner of Macy’s and philanthropist Nathan Straus, in 1920.Credit: George Grantham Bain Collection
David Green
David B. Green

On September 22, 1897, Nathan Straus, co-owner of Macy’s and a philanthropist, was found guilty in a municipal court of distributing watered-down milk at one of the stations he had set up to provide safe, pasteurized milk to children.

Straus, who with his family also operated the Brooklyn emporium Abraham & Straus, was fanatical in his commitment to make milk safe, and was frequently in conflict not only with dairy owners but also with municipal officials about his beliefs. Straus was convinced that his prosecution was part of a long-standing campaign by political enemies, and his immediate reaction to the trial was to announce his plan to shut down his milk stations.

Nathan, born January 31, 1848, was the second son (and third child) in the legendary family of Lazarus Straus, who brought his wife and children from Otterberg, Bavaria to the United States in 1854. After time in rural Georgia, and then Philadelphia, the family settled in New York, where Lazarus ran a china and glassware-import business.

Nathan and his older brother Isidor (who, together with his wife Ida, went down on the Titanic in 1912) together took over their father’s business, and went from supplying goods to R.H. Macy & Company to owning the store, and turning it into one of America’s great retail emporiums.

The civic-minded Nathan also served as New York City’s parks commissioner between 1889 and 1893, and even considered running for mayor in 1894. At the same time, Straus invested a lot of his time and money in charitable efforts, principally for the city’s poor.

Nathan Straus, left, Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise aboard a ship sailing for Palestine in 1920.Credit:

During the economic depression that began in 1893, for example, he began distributing coal for a nominal price, and for free to those who couldn’t afford to pay anything. He also opened up lodging houses that provided a bed and breakfast for a small fee to some 64,000 people.

Saving the children

Milk became a special interest to him after a healthy-seeming cow on Straus’ upstate farm died, and an autopsy revealed it suffered from tuberculosis. He became convinced that children could become sick if they drank milk from infected cows, and that the newly developed technology devised by Louis Pasteur in the 1860s, which required the heating of milk followed by rapid cooling, would kill all necessary dangerous microorganisms and make the milk safe.

All told, Straus set up 297 safe-milk stations to distribute pasteurized milk, in 36 American cities, and is regarded as partly responsible for the fact that the mortality rate among infants fell from 125.1 per thousand in 1891, to only 15.8 per thousand in 1925.

Health authorities, however, seemed more concerned with the adulteration of milk by merchants. Also, not all were convinced that pasteurized milk, in which 99 percent of microorganisms had been killed, was sufficiently safe for children.

In the 1897 case at the Manhattan Court of Special Sessions, Straus and an employee were accused of distributing watered-down milk at the Hebrew Institute Roof Garden on East Broadway. No one suggested that the milk had been unsafe, but the three judges said they were unfortunately obligated to find Straus guilty. At the same time, “they were glad that they could suspend sentence on him,” as the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported later that day.

The Eagle then quoted the manager of Straus’s milk depot as saying the philanthropist had decided to discontinue distribution of sterilized and raw milk until the law under which he had been prosecuted was changed. By the next day, the New York Times was reporting that the obviously emotional Straus had changed his mind, and would continue distributing milk.

In 1912, Straus and his wife, Lina Gutherz Straus, paid a visit to Palestine, after which they began providing assistance for health care and education there. This included a pasteurization plant and child-welfare stations. In 1927, the city of Netanya was named in his honor (“Nathan” in Hebrew is “Natan”), and when Straus died on January 11, 1931, he left the bulk of his estate to causes in Mandatory Palestine.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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