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Feast Your Eyes (Not): A Meat Boycott

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Pictures relating to food and drink often place the fare alluringly front and center, drawing the eyes in an attempt to spur thoughts of pleasurable tastes and smells.

But what about pictures that attempt to communicate about the absence or deliberate avoidance of food or drink? How do they get across their message? Pictures about dieting might pose one such visual communication challenge. But the particular instance I have in mind has to do with giving up certain foods for another reason: boycotts.

I recently ran across photographs in the George Grantham Bain Collection about a meat boycott in New York City in 1910. How did Bain’s news photo service communicate consumers’ abstaining from meat in protest over high prices?

Butcher stands idle before his counter of meat during the meat boycott. Photo published by Bain News Service, 1910.
Meat boycott – the idle butcher. Photo by Bain News Service, 1910.

Empty butcher shops with unsold meat (front and center, but not at all alluring) told part of the story, although details in the photo undercut the narrative a bit: I got distracted by the natty clothes the butcher in the foreground wears under his smock and the hand gesture of his co-worker at the back of the store, who evidently didn’t want his face to be seen.

Another photo shows a consumer turning to vegetable alternatives.

Meat boycott. Some vegetables please. Photo by Bain News Service, 1910 March 28.
Meat boycott -“Some vegetables please.” Photo by Bain News Service, [1910 March 28].
 The Bain News Service also tried to convey the grassroots nature of the protest by depicting discussion on the street.

East Side women discussing price of meat N.Y.C. Photo by Bain News Service, 1910 April[?].
East Side women discussing price of meat N.Y.C. Photo by Bain News Service, [1910 April].
My preliminary search for information about this particular meat boycott suggests it was part of a nationwide protest about the price of meat that started in the Midwest in January of 1910. Members of labor and other organizations signed petitions and pledged to abstain from meat for sixty days. Judging by comments in newspapers at the time, the boycott was winding down in various parts of the country by March. Comparing the dates of the boycott to those of the photos sparked my curiosity. The Bain photographs carry late March and April dates. Was Bain still covering a meat boycott at that late stage, and, if so, why?

Dates found on photographs in the Bain Collection and documentation accompanying it can be hard to interpret. Sometimes they indicate the date the photo was taken, but in other instances may indicate the date the news service added a photo to its stock or sent it out to Bain News Service subscribers. Perhaps the photographs were made at the height of the boycott and the March and April dates reflect one of these other circumstances? Or perhaps the boycott lasted longer in New York City or merged with other types of protests? A hint that this may be the case turned up in a New-York Tribune article from April 20, 1910, indicating that Italian butchers in New York City were organizing to close shops in protest of high prices. So far, I haven’t spotted the Bain pictures in any of the digitized newspapers I have browsed from that year, which might help pin down the date and context for the photos.

I learned plenty along the way, however. Bain’s photographs focusing on consumer resistance may visually hearken back to an earlier boycott. Although the Tribune article mentions Italian butchers, another Bain photo dated April 1910 of a riot in front of a butcher shop hints that the boycotts were more widespread.

Crowd gathered in front of butcher shop during meat riot, New York. Photo by Bain News Service, 1910 April 9.
Crowd gathered in front of butcher shop during meat riot, NYC. Photo by Bain News Service, 1910 April 9.

Hebrew characters on the shop window advertise kosher meat, suggesting that Jewish butchers and consumers were also protesting. Jewish homemakers on the Lower East Side were no strangers to meat boycotts. The Jewish Women’s Archive provides an account of the 1902 meat boycott on the Lower East Side in which they demonstrated their discontent with the rise in the price of kosher meat through some emphatic actions.

My conclusion? Pictures about resisting food may not be a feast for the eyes, but they certainly awaken the appetite for research!

Learn More

Roll back food prices : boycott meat... Poster sponsored by Women United for Action, published between 1973 and 1979.
Roll back food prices : boycott meat… Poster sponsored by Women United for Action, published between 1973 and 1979.

Comments (2)

  1. Thanks for the, um, appetizing coverage. It is hard not to try to connect the dots with Upton Sinclair’s book _The Jungle_, first published in serial form in 1905 and then as a book in 1906. _The Jungle_ is a famous and influential plea to improve conditions and wages for the mostly immigrant laborers in the meat processing and packing industry. These workers were, more or less, from the same social class as the boycotters in 1910, and improving their conditions would almost certainly raise the cost for meat.

  2. The man behnid, covering his eyes in photo: – looks like a Young orthodox Jewish worker.
    This might explain his behavior and puts the picture in the context of other photos you were discussing – about Jewish meat boycotts.

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