Kendra Smith-Howard’s book on pure and modern milk, now also available as paperback, is a splendidly written history of a substance which is neither purely natural nor artificial. As Smith-Howard concedes, her book is not the first one to discuss the transformation of milk and dairy foods in the twentieth century. What this book contends, however, is that the twentieth-century transformation of milk required not simply changes to the food itself, but also to the farms from which milk came. Emerging out of works in environmental history, Smith-Howard’s book on milk aims at linking consumption and production and thereby tries to help to explain how changing consumer practices and retail techniques changed rural nature.
Furthermore, she does not want to position the farm as a counterpoint to a rapidly industrializing urban America because this would make it difficult to explain why farm people willingly embraced industrialized agriculture. Instead, one of the book’s scope is to put to the fore the environmental history of rural industrialization. A second one is to explain the ways that milk, dairy foods, the cows, and farm landscape from which they came involved a delicate interweaving of human technologies with elements of the nonhuman environment.
The main questions that Smith-Howard addresses are: what ideas and values drove the modification of milk so that it became a staple food for Americans? How have consumers’ changing expectations for milk affected the dairy farmers, cows, and rural landscapes of milk production? Hence, the book traces the biological and economic processes through which milk has been produced and consumed, and it chronicles the meanings people made from those processes through the stories of four different dairy products: fluid milk, butter, ice cream, and the leftover waste of dairy processing (whey, skim milk, and milk proteins).
To explain why and how dairy farm families understood and reacted to the processes of rural industrialization and assessed its consequences, Smith-Howard incorporates evidence from farm diaries and records housed in state archives in each of America’s well-established dairy regions. But the book also draws on sources gathered at state archives outside these regions and from interviews of dairy farm families profiled by the Southern Agriculture Oral History Project. Furthermore, to bring not only the successful farmers who appear more prominently in the state archives into the picture but also those who struggled, Smith-Howard consulted the records of milk and agricultural regulators, agricultural experiment station reports, industry records, and national trade magazines. To get at how and why consumers purchased dairy foods and the meaning they made from those transactions, she relied upon the papers of consumer organizations, government bodies, surveys of consumer behaviour conducted by dairy organizations, cost-of-living-surveys, and women’s magazines and advertisements. While some of these materials record the motivations of individual purchasers, the author wants to explain the physical settings, economic structures, and political mechanisms through which those purchases took place and became meaningful.
The first chapter, “Reforming a Perilous Product”, is about milk in the Progressive Era. As more mothers shifted from breast to bottle for infant feeding, more babies came into contact with the potentially harmful food. As a consequence, public health officials sought to guard citizens against unsafe milk and devised control methods. The three main methods for assessing milk safety between 1890 and 1930 where dairy scorecards, bacterial counts of milk, and testing cows for bovine tuberculosis. What may be less obvious is that agricultural scientists also played an important role in improving the quality of milk supply. The process of making milk a safe consumer product required not just the food itself to be altered. The dairy farms from which milk came had to be transformed, too. Smith-Howard’s emphasis on characterizing rural residents as co-propagators of testing ordinances (p. 31) is a most valuable argument in this respect.
The second chapter, “Balancing the Goods of Nature”, is about butter in the interwar period. One of the main actors in this section of the book is the “Housewives’ League”. In the interwar period, butter making largely shifted from farms to factories, called creameries. Thereby, dairying experts asked small farmers to stop viewing their cows largely as generators of products to be used on the farm (like manure to fertilize soil or calves to increase the herd) and instead to value cows for the cream they produced. What is most interesting in this chapter is Smith-Howard’s consciousness for the complexity and variability of different farming styles and rural economies as well as her awareness that key resources on farms were and still are living organisms. Hence, as she observes, to see a silo on a farm signalled the farm’s orientation to the tenets of industrial farming. But the neighbourhood labor that constructed and filled silos each year is a reminder of the continued local character of industrializing dairy farms in the 1910s and 1920s. In so doing, the author contradicts present-day rhetoric that stresses the existence of two agricultural systems – one local and self-sustaining and the other industrial and large-scale – since cream-supplying farmers of the interwar period operated on the local and national levels simultaneously.
Chapter three, “Pure Streams and Predictable Profits”, deals with dairy waste in the mid-twentieth century. The release of skim milk and whey into rivers was not a new practice, but changes in the rural economy of the 1920s and 1930s – the rise of the automobile tourism and the farm depression – changed the way that industrialists understood and reacted to milk plant pollution. By examining the history of rotting dairy discharge, Smith-Howard depicts a broad spectrum of topics like “chemurgy” and casein, how skim milk went to war, as well as the history of artificial insemination in dairy herds. Thereby she demonstrates that skim milk’s transformation from hog slop to a desired diet food came about not because of demands from consumers for low-fat food, but to solve a manufacturing waste problem.
In the fourth chapter on the immediate post-war landscape of mass consumption, the main two driving forces are ice cream and the bulk tank. Through the story of ice cream and its ingredients, this chapter examines how individual farm families, milk inspectors, and consumers navigated through the broadly changing post-war landscape of dairy production and mass consumption. Besides the bulk tank, these developments also led to other material consequences on the farms like the shift from stanchion barns to loose-housing systems, which also changed the task of milking itself and gave rise to the milking machine in tow and the milking room or milking parlor. The biggest change to grass feeding in the post-war era was first, its preservation as silage. Second, farmers began to feed cows grass in the barnyard rather than meadow graze their herds.
In the fifth and last chapter, Smith-Howard looks at milk after 1950. Whereas turn-of-the-century milk reformers worried primarily about spoilage or disease, their post-war counterparts focused on the threats to milk posed by human-created contaminants. When the author comes to pesticides and purities, she offers a “view from the farm”. It is worth remembering why farm families so eagerly embraced DDT as a fly-killing remedy. As Smith-Howard demonstrates, it required quite a dramatic shift in how farm families understood sanitation, health, and nature to see chemicals like DDT as a cause of disease rather than flies. It becomes obvious that the chemicals’ indiscriminate use also had profound effects for farm families and domesticated animals.
Having said this, it is just too bad that Smith-Howard’s book is only on American cow’s milk and does not relate either to the entanglement of American milk and cows with other milk and cows, or connect to research done on milk and cattle breeding e.g. in Europe. This would have prevented Smith-Howard, for example, to tell the story of artificial insemination in quite a teleological framework as it was all but clear at the beginning that AI promised to heighten cow’s milk-producing capacity to new levels (p. 86). Furthermore, the reviewer would have much liked to get to know more about the changes in the actual process of milking and the milking equipment as well as the milkers’ (male or female) social status, especially with the advent of artificial insemination. Furthermore, it would have been desirable to include potentially available sources from cattle breeder’s associations or the National Milk Producers Federation. A last and minor critique pertains to the figures, which are undated in most of the cases. Nevertheless, Smith-Howard’s book is a must-read for everyone interested in the transformations of rural economies, especially when it comes to a view from the farm.
 See for example Beat Brodbeck / Peter Moser, Du lait pour tous. Portrait en images, documents et analyses de l’économie et de la politique laitières en Suisse au 20e siècle, Baden 2007; Barbara Orland, Enlightened Milk: Reshaping a Bodily Substance into a Chemical Object, in: Ursula Klein / Emma Spary (Hrsg.), Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe. Between Market and Laboratory, Chicago 2010, pp. 163–197; Bert Theunissen, Breeding for Nobility or for Production? Cultures of Dairy Cattle Breeding in the Netherlands, 1945–1995, in: ISIS 103, 2 (2012), pp. 278–309.