From Swill Milk to Swell Milk; One Building That Shouldn’t Be Put Out to ‘Pasteur’
On Avenue C between 9th and 10th Streets sits a small, unassuming two-story garage. Chances are you’ve walked past it and never even noticed it. The large garage door with spray-painted “No Parking” message is less than inspiring. However, this building was once witness to history.
In 1891, the leading cause of child mortality was sickness caused by bad milk. Diseases such as tuberculosis were spread from cattle to human through milk and the lack of refrigeration meant that the summer months were particularly dangerous. Of all the perilous conditions in late 19th century New York City, bad milk caused 23% of the deaths in children under 3.
It is difficult for us to imagine living in a world without pasteurized milk, and that is where our building comes into the story. Co-owner of Macy’s and philanthropist Nathan Straus was distraught by these statistics from 1891 and by the following year he and his wife, Una, began the Nathan Straus Pasteurized Milk Laboratory to provide sterilized milk to children. He needed a lab and plant where he could test milk, and bottle and distribute the healthy supply to those most in need. He picked a location on Avenue C in the most crowded neighborhood in the city, the Lower East Side (now the East Village), and commissioned John Snook, the architect of the original Grand Central Terminal and both Vanderbilt mansions of Fifth Avenue to design the building.
The plant opened in 1894 and immediately began the work of producing sterilized milk and distributing it to those in need. In the summer months there were more than 15 distribution centers around the city and milk was 5 cents for 24 to 80 ounces. For those who were unable to pay, milk was given for free. People were skeptical about this new, sterilized milk, so Straus also gave samples of the milk for 1 cent to show that the taste was not altered.
The Health Department was also interested in what Straus was doing and in 1905 they came to the lab at 151 Avenue C and oversaw a full test of the pasteurization process. The testing was a success, the milk that had been tainted with tuberculosis and other infectious diseases was free of bacteria. This was not news to Straus who several years earlier had performed a very different sort of test. In 1898 he took over the milk production for an orphanage on Randall’s Island. By simply sterilizing the milk from the same cows, he was able to cut the infant mortality rate due to tuberculosis in half in one year.
Following the publicized success of the test preformed with the Health Department and his own campaign to provide healthy milk to all of New York City, Straus purchased land further uptown to build an even larger plant. The lab on Avenue C had performed well in the ten years that Strauss had been in operation. When they opened in 1894, the plant was producing approximately 34,400 bottles and in 1905 it produced and distributed 3 million. In this stretch of time, the child mortality rate for New York City went from 126 out of 1000 children to 74.5 in 1904.
It is hard to imagine living in a world without a safe supply of milk. Those working in the Nathan Straus Sterilized Milk Plant and Laboratory were able to change and save lives for thousands of New Yorkers and to influence policies that would change the lives of all Americans. Although not very exciting to look at now, the building at 151 Avenue C brought hope to many poor mothers living in the tenements and surely was beloved by its early neighborhood.
In 1908, the lab moved into its new building on East 32nd Street. 151 Avenue C went on to house a Cleaning and Dyeing business that occupied both floors. Then, in 1930 the ground floor was converted into an auto repair shop and a billiards club moved in upstairs. Since then that floor has housed some form of nightly entertainment, be it club, bar or lounge. Ironic that a building constructed to distribute healthy drinks to children now provides an array of beverages for adults only.
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