Housewives and Consumer Organizing
Jewish Women's Archive - Living the Legacyhttp://jwa.org/LivingtheLegacy
Housewives and Consumer Organizing
Stop Action and Assess
Explain the following to the students:
At the point of the boycott, kosher meat prices had been rising over the course of the year. In early May 1902, the “Meat Trust” or the few companies that sold meat wholesale to local butchers, had raised prices from 12 to 18 cents per pound, forcing the local butchers to sell the meat to consumers for at least 6 cents per pound more in order to stay in business. The people buying this meat were mostly poor, immigrant, and working class. Many worked in the sweatshops and lived in the tenements that were ubiquitous at that time in New York’s history. In those days, 6 cents could be the cost of one whole meal. In both Europe and in America, masses of people had “gone on strike,” or “boycotted” by refusing to buy certain goods when prices soared or the quality of goods declined (do not tell students that anyone staged a boycott of meat. They will learn this from their work with the documents).
In class today you are going to imagine that you are representatives of various interest groups regarding kosher meat in 1902 New York City. You will receive information in day-by-day installments, and you will work together within your group to decide what to do in response to the situation each day.
Break students up into the following five groups: housewives (this group can be quite large and should be the largest of the groups); butchers (the second largest group but significantly smaller than the housewives group); city representatives, including policemen, mayor, judge, health inspector; representatives of “The Meat Trust,” or the slaughterhouses (this group can be as small as two individuals, including the Orthodox rabbi responsible for ensuring that the meat was kosher, and who was paid well for this job); and a group of others in the Jewish community, such as men, rabbis, the Jewish press, etc.
You should remind students that they cannot assume the newspaper accounts are objective. You may also want to unpack some of the language students will find in the documents and point out its implications. For example, while a newspaper might report that a “riot” or “uprising” broke out, the group accused of “rioting” in fact, may have been planning their actions in a politically strategic way. A group described as a “mob” in fact may have been an organized group of citizens exercising their Constitutional right to free assembly. One newspaper’s “riot” is another’s planned political action. This kind of analysis is particularly important in the context of the 1902 Kosher Meat Boycott, because the “mob” in this case was a group of women whose behavior might have been thought of as “overly emotional” or even “hysterical” at the time but wouldn’t necessarily be considered so by today’s standards.
Give each group the first document in the document study called “Events of May 11, 1902.” Give them the following guidelines to direct their group work:
- You will have 10 minutes to read the document and decide what to do in your groups.
- You will then report your interest group’s decision about how you would act to the whole group.
- You will not be debating between groups, only within your group about what actions your characters should take.
- Your group may not have an action in response to each day’s information, but you should have a response to most days’ events. If you don’t have a reaction on a particular day, your group can continue to hone its position—considering with which groups you might feel allied, how you might help other groups, etc.—as you wait for new information.
After each group presents, give them the next day’s set of documents and prompt the interest groups to consider how to respond. (From the documents, they will see what actually happened compared with what they would have done.) Again, give the students 10 minutes to review the documents and figure out what to do, and then have each group say what they would do in response to the events at that moment. Proceed similarly until all the days’ documents have been read and discussed.
The last document is for May 26. After each group has shared a response to that day’s information, read the following statement (an excerpt from an article on the kosher meat boycott by Professor Paula Hyman):
On May 27, Orthodox leaders, who had hesitated to express formal endorsement of the boycott, joined the fray. By June 5, the strike was concluded. The wholesale price of kosher meat was rolled back to nine cents a pound so that the retail price would be pegged at fourteen cents a pound. Kosher meat cooperatives, which were established during the strike in both Brooklyn and Harlem, continued in existence. While meat prices began to rise inexorably again in the period following the conclusion of the boycott, the movement can still be considered a qualified success.
Now lead a discussion with the whole class using the following questions:
- Why do you think Professor Hyman argued that the boycott was a success? What about the boycott do you think was successful?
- How did our class’s day-by-day responses differ from what actually happened? Did anything that happened in the historical events in 1902 surprise you? If there were differences between your class’s responses and how the events actually played out, ask the students what they think accounts for the differences.
- What did you notice about how the various newspapers depicted the events differently? Point out specific examples from the articles.
- Tell students that food boycotts, as well as rent boycotts, would become commonplace through the first half of the twentieth century. Explain that in 1904 and 1907, rent strikes were held in the same neighborhoods as the meat boycott and were largely organized by housewives, demonstrating that the housewives had learned from the meat boycott how to do this style of grass-roots organizing. Ask students: why do you think people would resort to this kind of activism if it didn’t necessarily solve problems long-term?
- Ask students with which of the following statements they most agree:
- Consumer boycotts don’t solve anything; to change things economically, you either have to be more militant or seek change in government policy.
- When people boycott, they are taking charge of their own economic life and using their collective power, which gets the government or other organizing bodies to make economic changes.
- The effects of boycotts such as this one may be more subtle, but no less important for their subtlety, than legislative or political change.
Now have students read the document about the 1907 rent strike, and ask them if their opinions on the last question changed as a result. Why or why not?
 Hyman, Paula, “Immigrant Women and Consumer Protest: The New York City Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902,” The American Jewish Experience, Second Edition, Jonathan D. Sarna, ed. (New York: Holmes & Meir, 1997) 157.