Abstract: Setting Standards for Milk: Politics and Science in Progressive Era America

Kendra Smith-Howard


Turn-of-the-twentieth-century milk drinkers in the United States risked contracting a variety of infectious diseases. To remedy the risks of impure milk, public health departments and agricultural officials sought to set standards for milk production and distribution. Most Americans agreed that the healthfulness of milk required protection, yet the process of establishing milk standards was not a smooth one. Americans debated fiercely about which methods should be used to evaluate milk safety and what scale of government should be entrusted with its protection. Eventually, standards emerged that relied on a mixture of local control and state or federal oversight, depended on health and agricultural officials, and blended inspection methods of observation and bacteriological examination. Though nearly all cities had standards for milk quality by the 1920s, the laws governing milk differed so greatly that milk accepted by one community might be rejected by another. Not until 1959 would a nationwide ordinance to govern the production and distribution of milk come about. By recognizing the limitations of Progressive Era milk reform, this paper reframes the relationship between reformers and resisters of standardization, and calls attention to interactions between government officials in establishing milk standards.