The organizers expected just 50 people. But on May 15, 1902, nearly 500 women packed into the meeting hall at 88 Monroe St. on the Lower East Side, with more gathered outside.
“New York never saw such a huge gathering of Jewish women,” one of the local newspapers proclaimed.
And the women were angry. The ladies took turns addressing the crowd, but it was Fanny Levy, a 35-year-old mother of six, who had the line of the evening. Lamenting the lack of results that efforts from others had brought, Levy exhorted the crowd, “This is their strike? Let the women make a strike; then there will be a strike!”
For an early example of activism and the power of women in New York City, look no further than the kosher meat strike of 1902 — a mostly forgotten incident that tore the Lower East Side apart. “This is an early example of consumer activism,” says Scott D. Seligman, author of the new book, “The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902: Immigrant Housewives and the Riots That Shook New York City” (Potomac Books).
The trouble began when the price of kosher beef shot up some 50 percent in just a few months.
“At 18 cents a pound — $5.25 in today’s dollars — kosher beef was now beyond the reach of families that had to pinch pennies to make ends meet,” the author writes.
The Lower East Side’s massive Jewish community was understandably upset, and felt the price hike was due to more nefarious forces than just simple supply and demand.
They weren’t wrong. “There was no question the price was being manipulated,” Seligman said.
‘We must take a hand in this meat fight’
By the turn of the century, most New Yorkers were getting their meat from Chicago slaughterhouses. Cattle were raised in Midwestern fields, killed in industrial mills, then the carcasses were shipped east on refrigerated rail cars.
Kosher beef, however, had numerous restrictions — most crucially that it had to be soaked in salt water no more than 72 hours after the animal had been killed.
The prohibition meant that kosher beef had to be trucked in from the Midwest alive and butchered in one of New York’s fast-disappearing abattoirs. The extra steps made kosher meat more expensive than nonkosher meat.
The meat was then distributed by a wholesaler to the numerous Jewish butcher shops that dotted the Lower East Side. “[Jewish women] bought meat frequently and in small quantities; economies of scale from larger purchases were out of reach for most, not only because of a shortage of cash, but also a lack of iceboxes,” Seligman writes.
From a supply perspective, the problem was that nearly the entire American beef business at the time was controlled by just four firms. “It is alleged that these firms have an agreement, which makes it possible for them to boost the price of fresh meats whenever they want to,” the New York Sun wrote at the time.
The so-called beef trust was engaging in price fixing, leading to the spike in prices.
At first, the butchers (most of whom were only making about $10 a week) tried to boycott the wholesaler in hopes of forcing a price reduction. But their action was sporadic, with some shops remaining open.
Ultimately, that boycott failed to bring results.
That’s when the women got involved. “These were middle-aged, Orthodox, not terribly educated, immigrant women who had not been in the US for so long,” Seligman said. “They were living in tenements on the Lower East Side. Most didn’t work outside the home.”
They quickly banded together, coming up with a plan for action.
“The time has arrived when we must take a hand in this meat fight,” a Yiddish flyer printed at the time read. “With our money, the butchers buy diamonds and wear diamonds . . . Now, what shall we say, dear sisters, when they give us stone and bone and charge us 5 cents more?”
The group agreed to station five women on each block containing a kosher butcher shop to “dissuade customers from patronizing them.”
After that Monroe Street meeting, the women were out in the streets, some 3,000 strong.
“These immigrant women, who can barely muster English taking to the streets, that got me interested,” the author writes. “My grandmother and great-grandmother were living on Orchard Street, and I like to believe they were involved.”
It didn’t take long for trouble to kick off.
Windows smashed, protesters beaten
On Cherry Street, a butcher named Jacob Kalinsky sold a piece of chuck steak to a customer. The women watching his shop pounced on the customer when she emerged from the shop, grabbing the meat and tossing it into the gutter.
They then burst into the shop and began destroying the butcher’s stock.
The police soon arrived and arrested 11 women. As they carted them off, a group of more Jewish women assembled, who pelted the officers with meat.
“One woman, a nursing baby in her arms, flung a plate at a policeman, knocking the helmet off his head,” Seligman writes.
Windows of butcher shops were smashed and protesters beaten.
The next morning the neighborhood “looked as though it had been bombed.” But the women returned the streets, some carrying sticks and “well-sharpened nails.”
On Saturday, the demonstrators made the rounds of the synagogues in the neighborhood, trying to enlist more to their cause.
Some received them warmly. Others dismissed them. One rabbi insisted the women were ignorant and not competent to manage a boycott.
Over the next several days, the boycott dragged on.
“It will be a question of endurance between us,” one of the women, Caroline Schatzberg, said at the time. “If the retailers can afford to pay rent and do no business, I guess we can afford to do without meat. Fish and vegetables are pretty good food at this time of year, and we can stand it as long as they can.”
The sporadic violence continued as well, and the boycotters found other creative ways to dissuade customers from patronizing butcher shops.
“The women went from shop to shop and asked at each one to examine the various grades of beef offered for sale,” the author writes. “After it was brought out of the ice box, they would handle it as much as possible and expose it to air in an effort to spoil its fresh appearance . . . They left each store without making any purchases.”
Change was on the way
By the end of May, the boycott won a huge victory when the Butchers’ Association agreed to join the cause, saying that they were “ready to close their stores and align themselves with the people to oppose the [beef producers].”
The women also took matters into their own hands. They raised money within the community and opened a cooperative butcher shop. The store, located at 245 Stanton St., was run by a woman named Sarah Cohn.
On its opening day, the store was mobbed.
“Housewives with their baskets stood in line a block away,” the New-York Tribune wrote at the time. “Men left their work and waited for hours to get the first meat the family had tasted for weeks. People rose before daylight to be the first at the door.”
Ultimately, the price of kosher meat in all local butcher shops fell to affordable levels, a reduction driven in part by the federal government’s investigation of the meat industry’s price fixing.
But the marginalized people of New York had learned an important lesson, according to Seligman: “They no longer needed any coaxing or convincing that they had the ability to change their situation.”