When Nathan Straus died in 1931, a few weeks short of his 83rd birthday, he left not a penny to charity. In his will, Straus invoked an old Jewish proverb: “What you give for the cause of charity in health is gold,” Straus wrote, “what you give in sickness is silver, and what you give in death is lead.”
So Straus confined his eleemosynary activities to his lifetime, but they were no less prodigious for that. He gave generously to many Jewish causes, especially the cause of Zionism—the Israeli city of Netanya is named for him—and for poor relief in New York City during times of depression. But during his lifetime, he was best known for his tireless efforts to improve public health and save the lives of children. Through his philanthropy—distributing pasteurized milk to children and infants—he saved nearly half a million lives. And because of his philanthropy’s effectiveness—combined with his dogged pursuit of pasteurization as a public policy—the nation’s infant mortality rate plummeted.
Born in Otterberg, in Rhenish Bavaria, in 1848, Nathan Straus was the third of the four children of Lazarus Straus. In 1852, his father immigrated to America, and in 1854, he sent for his wife and children. Like many Jewish immigrants to 19th-century America, Lazarus Straus went into retailing. But unlike most of them, Straus did not settle in a major city. Rather he opened a small store in Talbotton, Georgia, where his children attended a log cabin schoolhouse.
Talbotton, in west central Georgia, has only about 1,000 inhabitants today; its greatest claim to fame remains its association with the Straus family. In the 1850s, it was a very small town indeed, deep in the cotton kingdom of the old South. Being hundreds of miles from the nearest synagogue, the family went to the local Baptist church. The other members of the congregation were awed, to put it mildly, by Lazarus Straus’ ability to read the Old Testament in its original Hebrew. To them, it was like hearing the word of God directly.
The family sided with the South in the Civil War, and one son even tried to join the Confederate Army but was turned down because he was only 16. During the war, Lazarus Straus acquired a large stockpile of cotton—far more stable in value than the rapidly depreciating Confederate currency—but in the disorders that followed the fall of the Confederacy, the cotton was burned. He was wiped out.
Undaunted, Lazarus moved his family to Philadelphia and then to New York City. There he opened L. Straus & Son, importers of fine china and glassware from Europe, in partnership with his eldest son, Isidor. (In 1912, Isidor would refuse to enter a lifeboat while women and children remained aboard the Titanic. His wife, Ida, refused to enter a lifeboat unless he did also, preferring death at her husband’s side to life without him. They were last seen sitting in deck chairs, holding hands, as a wave swept them overboard.)
Nathan joined the family business in 1866, when he was just 18. In 1874, the company began operating R. H. Macy & Co.’s china and glassware departments under lease. The following year he married Lina Gutherz. The marriage, a happy one, lasted 55 years and produced six children.
The department store was as much an invention of the early Industrial Revolution as the steam engine or the railroad. Although the first department store was, at least arguably, established in England in 1734, retailing in the pre-industrial era was almost exclusively handled by individual proprietors, who often manufactured themselves the goods they had for sale. Even after the Industrial Revolution began in the mid–18th century, cloth was one of the few retail products manufactured on an industrial scale. It took the railroad, and its ability to distribute goods overland rapidly and cheaply, to bring retailing into modern times.
The economies of scale made possible by factory production and railroad distribution greatly lowered the cost of many goods, bringing them within the reach of the rapidly rising number of middle-class households. For the first time, shopping became not a chore, but a form of recreation.
A. T. Stewart, a Scots-Irish immigrant to New York in 1823, was the pioneer in mass retailing in the United States. He was so good at it and developed so many of the concepts of mass retailing—such as fixed prices and free entrance to his stores—that when he died in 1876, he was one of the richest men in the world, with the then-colossal annual income of $1 million. His “Marble Palace,” just north of City Hall on Broadway, was the largest store in the world when it was completed in 1846 and sold a wide variety of dry goods, clothes, and home furnishings that were now pouring out of the new factories.
He soon had competitors, of course, foremost among them Rowland Hussey Macy, who opened a dry goods shop in New York in 1858. By the time he died in 1877, Macy’s store was one of New York’s most successful, located in the heart of what was known as “the ladies’ mile,” a series of department stores that ran up Sixth Avenue from 14th Street to 23rd Street.
Nathan Straus soon showed the sort of merchandising savvy that brings customers into a store and keeps them coming back. He was a natty dresser and liked to walk around the store, greeting customers and employees alike, all the while whistling “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” At Macy’s, which until the 1950s sold only for cash, Straus came up with the idea of the depository account, where customers could deposit money and draw against it when they went shopping. Thousands of housewives took their secret savings out of shoe boxes in the closet and under the mattress and deposited them with Macy’s. He provided restrooms for customers and had emergency medical care available. He opened a lunch counter so that women could make a day of shopping at Macy’s.
The china and glass departments owned by the Straus family soon accounted for 18 percent of the total gross at Macy’s and made the highest profits of any of the store’s many departments. In 1888, the heirs to R. H. Macy offered the Straus brothers a partnership. Five years later, they joined them in acquiring the Brooklyn department store that became Abraham and Straus. By 1898, both Macy’s and Abraham and Straus were wholly owned by the Straus family.
Macy’s expanded steadily as the Straus family introduced more and more innovations. The Strauses invented bargain sales, demonstrations, and exhibitions. They introduced odd pricing ($9.95 instead of $10.00) to give the customer the psychological sense of getting a bargain (and, by forcing floor clerks to get change from cashiers, making it more difficult for them to pocket the cash). By 1902, when Macy’s moved to its present location in Herald Square, it was the largest store in New York City. The Straus family had become very, very wealthy.
But money-making had never been the family’s sole concern. Nathan dabbled in politics, serving as the city’s Parks Commissioner from 1889 to 1893. The following year, he was offered the Democratic nomination for Mayor but turned it down. Isidor served a short term in Congress. And Nathan’s younger brother, the distinguished lawyer Oscar Solomon Straus, served as Secretary of Commerce and Labor in the Theodore Roosevelt administration, the first Jew to serve in the cabinet, and later as Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. (Oscar’s grandson, Roger Straus Jr., would become the founder of the great publishing firm of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)
The brothers had also become philanthropists. In the depression that racked the country in the early 1890s, Nathan Straus did all he could to alleviate misery. In the terrible winter of 1893–94, he provided 1.5 million buckets of coal to the poor. The following year he supplied 2 million tickets for coal, food, and lodging at shelters he established. Deeply conscious of human dignity, Straus charged 5¢ to those who could afford to pay for the tickets, and gave them away free to those who could not. When coal was selling for 20¢ per pail, he supplied it at 5¢ per pail to those who were merely poor, while giving away fully 2,000 tons for free to those who were desperate.
Great as Straus’ help was to the poor, it was his tireless effort to secure a safe milk supply for the nation’s children that earned him nationwide fame. Before the Industrial Revolution, the overwhelming majority of babies were fed at their mother’s (or, if the family was rich enough, a wet-nurse’s) breast. And most Americans lived on farms, where fresh cow’s milk was readily available. Even in the biggest colonial cities, the countryside was never more than a short wagon ride away.
But as the Industrial Revolution gathered steam and America’s cities began to grow exponentially, that ceased to be the case. The urban rich could keep a cow in their stables, but the less affluent had to depend on “swill milk.” This was the milk produced by cows kept by brewers and distillers. These wretched creatures were fed the mash after it had been fermented (and most of its nutrients thereby extracted). The milk they produced was of the poorest quality imaginable. The largest such facility in Manhattan held 2,000 cows; its stench could be smelled a mile away.
But, as so often in the middle third of the 19th century, it was the railroads that changed the situation dramatically. Orange County, about 75 miles north of New York City, was the state’s largest dairy county. But because there was no way to transport the milk to the city before it spoiled, most of it was churned into butter, and “Goshen butter,” named after the county seat, was famous for its quality.
Then, in 1842, the New York and Erie Railway reached Orange County and one of the railroad’s agents there, Thomas Selleck, saw economic opportunity for the railroad. Although everyone “knew” that milk could not be transported any distance without spoiling, he persuaded a local farmer to send 240 quarts of milk to the city via the railroad and it sold out instantly. Soon lines a block long were forming at the Erie’s Manhattan piers to buy milk. The next year, the New York Railroad Journal was reporting that “At this moment fine and wholesome milk is sold all over the city at four cents a quart. The price for swill and adulterated milk was six.” In 1842 the Erie shipped between 600,000 and 700,000 quarts of milk to New York City. The next year it shipped 4 million. (In 1900 it shipped 73 million.)
Much of this milk was used to feed babies, as an increasing number of women worked outside the home in the new factories. But turning to cow’s milk to feed babies posed no small menace to these children. For while the milk might look and taste wholesome, all too often it was not.
The childhood mortality rates in the mid–19th century were appalling in the rapidly growing cities of the United States and Europe. In New York in the 1850s, fewer than half the children born there lived to see their fifth birthdays. The daily obituary page was filled with commonplace tragedies:
McMahon—On Saturday, January 2, at half-past six PM Mary F. McMahon, the beloved daughter of William and Sarah F. McMahon, after a painful illness, aged 2 years, 10 months and 6 days.
Darling—Suddenly on Friday, January 1, Clarence A., second son of A. A. and G. W. Darling, aged 11 years and 2 months.
It was unknown at the time, but commercial milk was the cause of much illness, especially among very young children and infants. Milk from any healthy mammal is initially sterile and is often referred to in modern dairy industry advertising campaigns as “nature’s perfect food.” Unfortunately, milk is just as perfect a food for a myriad of microorganisms as it is for humans. Cows were milked by unwashed hands and the milk was poured into unsterilized containers and transported long distances from farms to cities.
Along the way microorganisms could enter and multiply quickly. Typhoid, diphtheria, and cholera can all be contracted from contaminated milk, although there may be no sign of spoilage. In one test, milk legally approved for sale at a grocery on Allen Street in New York City was found to contain bacteria in amounts of more than 125 billion per quart. There is no reason to think this was out of the ordinary.
The greatest menace to infants was something called “summer complaint,” an intestinal infection that caused an uncontrollable diarrhea, causing death by dehydration. Thousands of children died of it every summer in New York and other cities across the country.
As if these afflictions were not bad enough, tuberculosis, the Victorians’ “dreaded, dark disease,” can be carried by milk as well, and, worse, it is one of the few diseases that can get past nature’s defenses and be directly transmitted through breast feeding. Cows are as susceptible to TB as humans and often show few symptoms until they are near death. For these reasons, milk, the staff of life to the young, was also the sower of death among urban children in 19th-century America.
Enter Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch. The role of microorganisms in disease was unknown until the pioneering work of these two scientific giants—and many less famous colleagues—brought medicine into the modern era. Pasteur demonstrated that microorganisms were responsible for fermentation in wine and beer and for the spoilage of milk. He also proved that such diseases as anthrax and rabies were caused by specific organisms. Robert Koch won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1905 by isolating the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. The germ theory of disease is among the single most powerful ideas in the history of medicine.
Milk of Human Kindness
In the early 1890s, Nathan Straus kept a “high-bred cow” at his camp in the Adirondacks in order to supply the household with good, clean milk. Suddenly, the apparently healthy cow sickened and died. An autopsy revealed tuberculosis, and Straus was appalled. It was not then certain that bovine TB was the same as the human variety; Koch thought they were not, and turned out to be right. Still, to Straus, who had no scientific training, “It was inconceivable . . . that the milk from tuberculous cows could be a safe food in its raw state.”
Straus also knew there was a solution at hand. Pasteur had shown that heating a liquid such as beer or milk to a point between 140 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit, holding it there for a period of 20 minutes, and then cooling it rapidly killed most disease-causing microorganisms, including Koch’s deadly Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
Straus immediately saw to it that his own children drank pasteurized milk. Characteristically, he then set to work both to provide pasteurized milk to needy children—and to have the process legally mandated for all milk sold. He set up milk stations in poor areas in New York City to give away pasteurized milk, and proof of the efficacy of the program was not long in coming. In 1891 fully 24 percent of babies born in New York City died before their first birthday. But of the 20,111 children fed on pasteurized milk supplied by Nathan Straus over a four-year period, only six died.
In 1898 Straus served as the president of the city’s board of health. He immediately donated pasteurization equipment to the city’s orphan’s asylum, located on what is now Roosevelt Island in the East River, which was run by the board. This grim, Dickensian institution took in children abandoned by or removed from their families, children who had nowhere else to go. So it is not surprising that they had a death rate four times that of children in general in New York, which was high enough. In 1897, a typical year, 44 percent of the children housed there died. In 1898, with the introduction of pasteurized milk the only change, the death rate at the asylum plunged to 20 percent.
With results like this, one would think that pasteurization would have swept the nation, especially with Straus’ incessant lobbying and information campaign in newspapers and magazines. But there were opponents to the process, many of whom were in positions of influence. The dairy industry, needless to say, did not want to be saddled with any extra costs. And there were a lot of well-meaning consumers who demanded “certified milk.”
Certified milk was supposed to guarantee that at every step from cow to customer the milk was carefully controlled, inspected, and certified as being up to standards. The movement for certified milk objected to pasteurization because it did not kill every organism in milk, only 99 percent of them (and all the ones that caused serious human disease). But as Straus pointed out in one of his many articles on the subject of safe milk, standards and inspections will not always be adhered to. “The milk may become infected from the pail into which it is drawn,” he wrote, “from the person of the milker, from dust blowing into the pail, from the water used in washing the dairy utensils, from the cooler, from the cans, in transit to the city, from the distributing plant.” It was just not possible to make so complicated a process, passing through so many hands, germ-proof. And once the milk was infected, the germs would multiply quickly.
Also, Straus pointed out that certified milk was 10–15¢ more expensive per quart than regular milk. To those pushing certified milk—overwhelmingly upper-middle-class—that was a pittance. To the less affluent, however, at a time when an unskilled workman might make no more than a dollar a day, it was anything but. One could buy lunch for a nickel in New York in the 1890s.
The public health authorities, of course, preferred the certified milk method. Bureaucrats always want to manage a problem, not solve it, and the more personnel it takes to manage it, the better. They resisted pasteurization. At one point Straus was even arrested for “adulterating” milk because he supplied mothers with infant formula. But he persevered. In 1908, when the infant death rate had been cut in half by voluntary pasteurization, Chicago became the first city to require it, and New York finally followed suit in 1914.
During his crusade, Straus established, at his own expense, 297 milk stations in 36 cities. Over the course of 25 years, more than 24 million glasses and bottles of safe milk were dispensed. The national death rate for infants fell from 125.1 per thousand in 1891 to 15.8 in 1925. Altogether it is estimated that the efforts of Nathan Straus directly saved the lives of 445,800 children. By pushing relentlessly to have pasteurization mandated throughout the country, he indirectly saved the lives of millions more.
Despite these prodigious outside activities, Straus remained active in the management of Macy’s until 1914 and retired from business completely only in 1925, when he was 77. When he died in 1931, his estate amounted to about $1 million, largely because he had already given so much of his wealth away.
Today New York City has a touching memorial to Isidor Straus and his wife—they who loved honor and each other more than life itself—but there is none to Nathan. In a larger sense, however, there are thousands of memorials in every neighborhood of every city in the country. As Adm. George Dewey explained at the ground-breaking ceremony for one of the milk stations, “If all the little children whose lives [Straus] saved could mass themselves around the building now to be erected [he] would have the most splendid memorial ever made to man.”
Contributing editor John Steele Gordon is the author of six books, including An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power.