The Jewish Women Who Led NY’s Kosher Meat Riot of 1902


(New York Jewish Week) — On Friday morning, May 16, 1902, the Lower East Side “looked as though it had been bombed,” writes Scott Seligman.

One day earlier, Jewish women, outraged by rising beef prices, began picketing kosher butcher shops, stopping and sometimes assaulting “scabs” who dared to buy meat. By nightfall, butchers had been attacked and barely a kosher shop had escaped damage.

The two weeks of urban unrest that followed, spreading across New York and as far away as Boston, is chronicled in Seligman’s new book, “The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902: Immigrant Housewives and the Riots that Shook New York City” (Potomac Books). It’s the first full-length treatment of a consumer uprising and Jew-vs.-Jew conflict that in its time would inspire a generation of farbrente Yidishe meydlekh – fiery Jewish women – who would stand up for social justice in the early 20th century.

It is also the story of the Beef Trust, one of the powerful cartels that had a strangehold on the American marketplace until they were broken up by reformers – prodded in part by women whose names are now forgotten.

Seligman spoke to The Jewish Week from his home in Washington.

New York Jewish Week: Your book is about poverty and unrest among Jewish immigrants living on the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century. What is the Jewish population and how big is the kosher market?

Scott Seligman: There something like 600,000 Jews there at this time. The vast majority are Russian and Eastern European immigrants. Uptown there are German and Sephardi Jews but not nearly as many. There were some 600 kosher butchers on the Lower East Side – a lot of storefronts — and most of the women went to butchers in the immediate neighborhood. It was an interesting relationship, because there had to be trust on both sides. The women had to be assured they were getting kosher meat, and the butchers had to offer credit. Families couldn’t afford meat until the paycheck came home.

What changes in 1902?

The price of meat was beginning to inch up a bit at the beginning of the year and then there was a sudden spike and the cost of flanken went from 12 cents to 18 cents a pound retail – a 50 percent jump. And that just put it out of reach.

Although kosher meat tends to be more expensive, given the costs of supervision and the limited cuts of meat that are permissible, the blame really lies with the Beef Trust, the large midwestern beef packers.

There were five or six of them, including names we know today like Swift and Armour. They were a cartel, and they were holding up the cattlemen for lower prices by coordinating with each other, demanding kickbacks from the railroads that shipped the carcasses and the cattle, deciding how much meat to send to the cities and ultimately gouging consumers. They were mostly gentiles, except for Schwarzschild & Sulzberger, German Jews who ran a slaughterhouse on Manhattan’s East Side, where the U.N. sits today, and served the kosher and non-kosher market. By the way, in my genealogical research I couldn’t establish a link between those Sulzbergers and the ones who owned The New York Times, although I can’t imagine there isn’t one.

But while the cartel set the prices, the local butchers appeared to suffer the consequences.

The butchers saw it coming first. They knew they couldn’t sell the quantities they’d been selling with a 50 percent price hike. They tried to get ahead of it and got local butchers to agree to shut down for three or four days to pressure wholesalers into lowering prices. The women supported that and the butchers did get some paltry concessions from the slaughterhouses but it didn’t change the price of beef. And when they reopened and raised prices instead of lowering them, the women felt they were gouging them.

The tragedy of this is that no one could see more than one step back in the supply chain — women blamed the butchers, the butchers blamed the slaughterhouses, the slaughterhouses blamed the cartel, and the cartel blamed the cowmen.

This all comes to a head in mid-May, when women picket kosher butcher shops. What was the spark?

The day the butchers reopened, a mother of four named Sarah Edelson decided she needed to convene a meeting of housewives at the Monroe Palace, a saloon on Monroe Street run by her family. She didn’t suffer fools, she made extra money as a matchmaker and was contentious. But she had a moral compass. She weighed 240 pounds which gave her gravitas in her bearing, let’s say that. She got the word out, including an ad in the Yiddish papers, and 500 people showed up and spilled onto Monroe Strike. Another organizer, Fannie Levy, had my favorite line at the meeting, deriding the butchers’ strike: “This is their strike? Let the women make a strike, then there will be a strike!” That’s what I wanted to call the book: “Let the Women Make a Strike.”

They decided they were going to do a boycott, and overnight must have recruited 3,000 women, just going door to door, because squads of five took up positions across the Lower East Side. It wasn’t supposed to be violent. They were supposed to approach customers, remonstrate with anybody who wanted to buy meat and ask them not to do it. But when people crossed the lines, that’s when all hell broke loose. They grabbed the meat, threw it in the gutter and threw kerosene on it so it was inedible.

This is May 15. You write that butchers were attacked, windows were broken and shops were damaged. I was surprised about how violent it got and how widespread the unrest was.

Although there was violence, this was a very well-disciplined event. Nobody ate the meat. Absolutely no one was supposed to eat meat and there was no looting. Only butcher shops and some restaurants were targeted. It wasn’t like street riots today, with people smashing windows up and down the street, and it stopped for Shabbat.

The police reaction reminded me of recent unrest, when cops turned on protesters and made a volatile situation worse.

Police came with billy clubs at the ready. When it became clear this was a large group of people all over the Lower East Side, they didn’t pull their punches. They were slugging people and arresting them, and for 1902 it was seen as unseemly for them to be doing this in the streets to women. But there had been bad blood between the cops and Jews going back to the earliest labor strikes. When they treated women the same way it really was beyond the pale. A lot of women were hurt, hospitalized or sent to the justice of the peace for fines and lectures. And they talked right back to the judge, not cowed by the man in authority.

You write about mass meetings of Jews denouncing police brutality, during the meat riots and after Jews were attacked during the funeral that June for Rabbi Jacob Joseph, a Vilna rabbi who had been brought to New York to bring order to the kosher supervision system. Were the police held accountable?  

The mayor was Seth Low, a reformer who had gotten elected in part with the Jewish vote and was responsive to the Jewish community. He called for investigations, and they found Jews to be victims of police violence, but nobody really got punished.

The meat strikes spread to the Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem, Newark and Boston. But this wasn’t the only pressure building on the meat industry – state and federal authorities had begun pressing an anti-trust case against the cartel at almost the same time.

This was the backdrop against what was happening on the Lower East Side. They didn’t resolve the cartel issue until years later, after the Supreme Court [in 1905] ruled the cartel was an illegal trust, but in this same period the courts were getting injunctions against the cartel, and they were not able to fix pricing, limit the meat supply, or coordinate credit and delivery charges. That was effective.

Were the riots effective in lowering the price of meat?

While they did come down, it was not 100 percent clear why. On one level, the whole purpose of raising prices was to increase profits and nobody was making profits while the shops were closed. And then once the rabbis got involved and started negotiating with the slaughterhouses, prices did come down. The cartel was also being hamstrung by the legal proceedings.

Ultimately, they weren’t selling meat. And to that extent, the protests were a success and prices returned to what people wanted to pay.

There was so much organizing within such a short time, with organizations forming like the Ladies’ Anti-Beef Trust Association and the Allied Conference for Cheap Kosher Meat. You estimate the women organizers reached a couple of hundred thousand women throughout the metropolitan area. Did any of this activism outlive the meat strikes?

They immediately went out of existence, and the women who emerged from complete obscurity sank right back into it again. Toward the end they even set up some cooperative shops to compete with the butchers, and because they were not-for-profit they were able to sell more cheaply, and even they went out of business. Things went back to square one.

Eventually men take over the strike and women wouldn’t take on activist roles for perhaps another decade. Was this mere chauvinism?

It was inevitable the men were going to assert control. In part, the women reached out to them. They needed the whole Lower East Side and it couldn’t just be a women’s strike. Women went to synagogues on Shabbat morning to enlist men, they reached out to labor unions and landsmenshaften and joined the Allied Conference. I did not find any resentment over gender. This wasn’t a feminist struggle – they were looking for cheap meat, and the men brought skills that the women didn’t have.

The women’s suffrage parades were later than this. The New York shirtwaist strike was later than this. Remarkable women organized the meat strike and did it well, but that’s not what was important them.

Where did the women get their skills?

[American University historian] Pamela Nadell, my guardian angel on this project, told me, “Jewish women are born organizers.” In addition, supply and demand economics were not such a foreign concept for some of these women. A lot of them had little jobs on the side, taking in boarders, or piece work, or being matchmakers like Sarah Edelson. They understood that if you don’t buy, the prices go down. Their task was to explain to everybody on the Lower East Side why they were being asked to deprive their families of meat for a little while.

Your book is a reminder of the political ferment of the time, with the labor movement, socialists, communists and even anarchists looking for a piece of the action. Movements that are vilified today were mainstream on the Lower East Side.

I wouldn’t say they were mainstream, but the socialists were certainly around. The Forward is a good example. As an unabashedly socialist newspaper they didn’t do reporting on the violence; instead their reporters saw women speaking politely to each other and were delighted the women were taking on the capitalist establishment. There was a socialist rally in Rutgers Park on May 20, and a lot of women went to it. Someone spread the rumor that the Ladies’ Association was actually a socialist group, which of course it wasn’t. Carolyn Schatzberg, another of the organizers, smelled a rat and said somebody planted this story to discredit the women’s movement.

The concept of strong Jewish women who didn’t take any crap from anyone was a very appealing topic to me.

Joseph Goldman, who was in charge of the Butchers’ League, claimed there were anarchists behind the women’s strike. Sarah Edelson had the best line: “You never saw a woman with a husband and half a dozen children who was an anarchist.”

I had never heard of the meat strike of 1902, or subsequent strikes in 1906, 1910, 1912, 1916, 1919, and as late as 1935. This seems to be a period of major unrest that slips out of history. Did the riots have any influence in the period immediately following?  

The specific incidents may have been forgotten but the tactics were used over and over again. The women didn’t need any more convincing that they could effect change. The 1904 tenants’ strike, fighting rising rents on the Lower East Side, absolutely called on the meat strike as a precedent. But as time went on this particular event wasn’t remembered.

There was no memory of it until Paula Hyman [the late professor of modern Jewish History at Yale] rediscovers it in 1980. She rescued it, but her paper was only 14 pages. I went back to all the New York papers, the New York Sun, the World, the Herald, the Brooklyn Eagle, and the Yiddish papers. It’s all there.

How do you personally relate to this story?

My grandmother lived on Orchard Street, and I’d like to think her mother participated in it. The concept of strong Jewish women who didn’t take any crap from anyone was a very appealing topic to me. I’d grown up around a lot of strong Jewish women, and this was inspiring. I could hear their words coming out of my grandmother’s mouth.