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  • Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History since 1900 by Kendra Smith-Howard
  • Deborah Warner (bio)
Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History since 1900. By Kendra Smith-Howard. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. x+ 229. $34.95.

As explained in this well-researched and remarkably readable book, milk today often is seen as one of nature’s most perfect foods, and yet this reputation has been earned, in large part, by gobs of science and technology placed between cows and consumers. Moreover, many of the new technologies that produced wholesome milk and milk products, and that brought them to market, had a corresponding impact on farms and farm families across the country. To flesh out her story, Kendra Smith-Howard uses the private voices of farm families who made the often difficult decisions [End Page 1007] regarding these innovations, as well as the more public voices of scientists and bureaucrats.

Smith-Howard begins in the Progressive Era when breast-feeding was falling out of favor, and the link between the high rate of infant morbidity and mortality and the tainted cows’ milk available to increasingly urbanized Americans was becoming ever more apparent. Solutions to these problems would come through testing milk samples, licensing dairies, testing cows for bovine tuberculosis, and enforcing regulations regarding pasteurization.

Chapter 2 focuses on the interwar period when the production of butter moved from farms to factories. Improved transportation systems facilitated this first transformation, as did the new hand-cranked centrifugal separators adopted by farm families who paid close attention to their balance sheet. These technologies also could exacerbate the problems of purity, however, as separators were a bear to clean, and as better roads and trucks let creameries gather their raw materials from ever farther afield. This same period saw the rise of self-service grocery stores, packages designed to distinguish one brand of butter from another, and increased competition from vitamin-fortified margarine.

Smith-Howard then turns to the untreated dairy waste that spilled into rivers and streams, fouling the pristine countryside whose imagery was so widely used to sell milk and other dairy products. Farm families may have been inured to the odors, but not so the city people who were increasingly flocking to the country for breaths of fresh air. To tackle problems of this nature, scientists, industrialists, and farm representatives formed a Farm Chemurgic Council to develop industrial uses for whey, skim milk, and buttermilk. In time, the casein extracted from skim milk was used in paints and papers and plastics. Skim milk itself became a valued food during World War II, for lend-lease, military, and civilian use. After the war, skim milk became a key part of school lunch and international relief programs, and of the manufactured foods that were becoming an increasingly large component of American diets. Smith-Howard also explains that, with the introduction of careful breeding records and, later, artificial insemination, male calves came to be seen as useless by-products of the dairy business. And she examines the development and adoption of the various technologies that, from the standpoint of farmers, go into improving bovine reproduction.

Turning to the postwar landscape of mass consumption, Smith-Howard focuses on ice cream which, with refrigerators and freezers becoming standard household equipment in America towns and burgeoning suburbs, could now be sold in supermarkets and consumed at home. Ice cream, moreover, following the work of food chemists, was coming to contain an assortment of substances besides cream, sugar, and flavorings. In time, there were FDA regulations and consumer demands to know more about what was in the package. During this same period, farm families who [End Page 1008] hoped to remain in the dairy business by meeting Grade A production specifications began feeding their cows in the barnyards rather than turning them out to pasture, investing in special-purpose milking parlors, and storing their grass in silage. But soon there was too much of a good thing: high production levels depressed prices; manure became an environmental hazard; and connections were drawn between heart disease and dietary fat. A spate of other milk-purity issues concerned a host of Americans, from mothers to presidential...