This post is contributed by Elissa Sampson on behalf of the Siempre Verde Garden and Stanton Street Shul
The Lower East Side’s history is replete with social protest and community organizing addressing the issues of poverty, rapid immigration, assimilation and overcrowding. Its people have addressed difficult living, working, and housing conditions by supporting community and creating new, productive cultural spaces. Drawing on the rich tradition of agitprop, as seen in Yiddish and other neighborhood theater, Siempre Verde Garden and Stanton Street Shul introduce the Return of the Great Meat Boycott of 1902. Unlike much early twentieth century organizing, this spontaneous boycott was run by housewives with children. These women took to the streets to protest a drastic hike in kosher meat prices, since the retail butchers’ attempt at organizing did not succeed in holding down the Meat Trust (cartel’s) prices.
The Lower East Side housewives organized a boycott that became a model for street actions as well as rent strikes. The housewives also went into synagogues to announce the boycott and obtain rabbinic and other support. On May 17th, 1902, the New York Times headline screamed “Meat Boycott Sparks Riot:”
NEW YORK: Meat riots on a big scale have occurred here. Last Sunday [May 11] 400 kosher butchers on the East side instituted a boycott of the packers because of the high price of meat. But the women of the Ghetto, over five hundred of them, indignant over what they considered a cowardly capitulation to the packers, formed themselves into committees and began operations. They raided butcher’s shops, tore the meat to pieces, flung some into ash barrels, and what they could not carry they sprinkled with kerosene.
Oh my! By May 14th, the retail butchers had given up. So on May 17th, the women started up, loudly demanding a rollback in prices from 18 cents a pound to the previous 12 cents a pound. Historian Paula Hyman wrote,
As one activist, Mrs. Levy, the wife of a cloakmaker, shouted, “This is their strike? Look at the good it has brought! Now, if we women make a strike, then it will be a strike.” Gathering support on the block . . . Mrs. Levy and Sarah Edelson,… called a mass meeting to spread the word of the planned boycott.
The next day, after a neighborhood canvas staged by the organizing committee, thousands of women streamed through the streets of the Lower East Side, breaking into butcher shops, flinging meat into the streets, and declaring a boycott. “Women were the ringleaders at all hours,” noted the New York Herald. Customers who tried to carry their purchased meat from the butcher shops were forced to drop it . . . Within half an hour, the Forward reported, the strike had spread from one block through the entire area. Twenty thousand people were reported to have massed in front of the New Irving Hall. . . . About seventy women and fifteen men were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct
Three weeks into the boycott, the price of kosher meat was lowered four cents when the Meat Trust agreed to drop prices to 14 cents a pound. These housewives created a precedent for future consumer and housing activism. Even though prices would inevitably rise again, the boycott mobilized and politicized a group (homemakers) not traditionally involved in organized protest. The boycott would become a model for future protests and was in many ways a precursor to larger scale strikes, including the 1909 shirtwaist strike.
Join us in recreating their story in the Garden and the Shul this Wednesday, May 25th, 6-7pm — no experience necessary to join this boycott! We are actively looking for policemen, housewives, butchers and potential ringleaders to join us, and for a lively crowd to view and participate in the event. So bring aprons, kerchiefs, hats, caps, rubber chickens, and anything else that ties you to May, 1902. Most important, bring your voices to add to theirs; these housewives spoke up!
Contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also check out this video by the Jewish Women’s Archive that speaks to the significance of this boycott:
Located right across the street from the historic Stanton Street Shul, Siempre Verde Garden is the Lower East Side’s “newest” community garden. Thanks to community support, Siempre Verde Garden became an official GreenThumb Garden under the Parks Department’s aegis on January 1, 2016. Both the Garden and the Shul – itself an unpretentious tenement synagogue that is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places – are deeply interested in the Lower East Side’s unique history as an immigrant/migrant urban area once deemed the most overcrowded spot on Planet Earth. The two organizations see the past as an active and rich resource that helps foster a sense of belonging and cultural creativity for neighborhood residents.