Toronto’s Pure Milk Crusade 1911-1914 as seen in newsprint and photos
One hundred years ago cows were milked on the farm; the milk was stored in large metal containers that were transported by rail to Toronto where the milk was sold to dairies that bottled it and delivered it to consumers’ doors. The rattle of bottles was the urban equivalent of the rooster crow, announcing the dawn to city residents.
Linked with purity and wholesomeness, farm fresh milk has always held a strong appeal. But what happens when the delivery of milk from cow to consumer becomes circuitous and commercialized? This has always been a dilemma but at no time did it pose a greater health risk than in the decade before the 1911 provincial Milk Act when Toronto milk distribution was carried out by over 160 dairies, each serving a neighbourhood and often housed in small quarters lacking effective cold storage and sanitary facilities or equipment.
Limiting the spread of infectious diseases was a focus of the city’s Health Department in the first decades of the 20th century. Food became a cause of concern because it carried potentially deadly levels of micro-organisms. Milk, in particular, promoted as the ideal nourishment for infants while at the same time being particularly vulnerable to contamination, spoilage or adulteration, became a hot point of public health reform.
Dr. Charles Hastings, Medical Health Officer between 1910 and 1929, had a personal stake in health reform for he had lost a daughter to typhoid contracted from impure milk. Understanding that the well being of all depended on protecting those who were most susceptible to contagious diseases, under his watch Toronto became famous for effective programs designed for the many who were struggling to get on their feet and so living in unsafe conditions.
The 1911 Ontario Milk Act gave municipalities the power to set milk quality and sanitary distribution standards. Henceforth all Toronto dairies required a license–dairy farms and bottling/distribution operations were subject to regular inspections to ensure that they met hygienic requirements. Milk would be tested for bacteria on arrival at the train depot and at the dairy. The work of the Health Inspectors, city laboratory and examples of unsafe dairies were documented by the official City Photographer, Arthur Goss.
Educating the public through a monthly bulletin whose contents were selectively re-published through the Toronto Daily Star, the Department of Health highlighted the importance of inspection, testing, and proper storage conditions for safe milk.
Through the summer editions of its bulletin, the department recommended and gave instructions for at-home pasteurization at the time of year when milk was more likely to spoil during transportation and in ineffective ice-box storage. By 1914 only pasteurized milk could be sold in Toronto.
Women were the target of the pure milk campaign. The department addressed them directly, outlining their responsibility for baby’s health in black and white moral terms in the June 1911 Bulletin:
The mother who cannot nurse her baby is to be pitied—the mother who will not nurse her baby is to be scorned, and if her child dies as a consequence is morally guilty of infanticide.
Local Well-baby Clinics stressed the importance of infant weight gain as an indicator of health. Since it is the fat content of milk that provides the necessary nutrition for proper development, the Milk Act guarded against such practices as diluting the milk with water and enhancing taste and texture with such additives as chalk by ensuring that only certified milk that met the minimum standard of 3% butter fat content could be sold.
In a flurry of competitive advertising the larger Toronto dairies rushed to assure housewives of their command and control of every stage of quality milk production–from the cow’s pasture to door delivery.
An “advertorial” by the Farmers’ Dairy disguised promotion as health bulletin in the pages of the Toronto Daily Star.
In this marketing war which exploited the fear raised by the pure milk campaign, the Department of Health stepped in to caution against misleading advertisement.
A dairy in Toronto doing some specious advertising. To read their advertisements the ordinary citizen would believe that the entire milk supply came from one farm where the cattle were kept under ideal conditions – a sort of cow’s paradise with avenues of cleanliness. As a matter of fact, four fifths of the milk supply for this dairy is derived from the farms of Scarboro Township, and this four fifths is not a bit better in quality than the rest of the milk coming into Toronto.
Investment in up-to-date electrical equipment became a priority; those ventures such as City Dairy that could afford shiny, technologically advanced facilities resembling scientific labs increasingly cut into the market share of the small family-owned neighbourhood dairies.
Within a block of the current Wychwood Barns Farmer’s Market, the neighbourhood dairy of Philip R. Legg was run out of 77 Hocken Avenue. This Mom and Pop operation was listed as a recommended dairy in the department’s August 1914 Bulletin. That year, the dairy operator was Mrs. Legg, suggesting that the wife was in charge while Legg was in active service. The Legg’s dairy is included in Wright’s Directory in 1913 and 1917 but disappears by 1921. The number of city dairies drops steadily from 166 in 1913, to 118 in 1917, to 68 in 1921. The local dairy was a dying breed.
Today we celebrate the enduring appeal of cows to children of all ages, the still-alive art of hand-milking and the re-opening of Dutch Dreams on Ellsworth Avenue and Vaughn Road, around the corner from where the Legg’s bottled and distributed safe milk to our neighbourhood one hundred years ago.
Thank you Thomas McGuire, Kaya Karpinska and Damon of Culture City
as well as Manda Vranic, City of Toronto Archives