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Review: “Pure & Modern Milk”

Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History since 1900 is a cogent study of dairy production from the turn of the twentieth century to the present.

Published onJan 01, 2015
Review: “Pure & Modern Milk”

Kendra Smith-Howard. Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History Since 1900. Oxford University Press, 2013. Hardback, 978-0-19-989912-8, $34.95

Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History since 1900 is a cogent study of dairy production from the turn of the twentieth century to the present. A wide ranging and carefully researched piece of scholarship, Kendra Smith Howard’s book takes up, as her introduction explains, the practice of environmental historians who have “elucidated the relationship between production and consumption” (6). Following in the footsteps of authors such as Richard White (whose book, The Organic Machine, Smith-Howard references) and historian Edmund Russell, the author joins a growing group of scholars who advocate a more nuanced reading of the urban-rural relationship than has previously been undertaken by environmental histories.

Rather than adopting the Marxist (or Ruskian, or any one of other innumerable nineteenth-century thinkers’) fear of the ‘“machine”’ encroaching on the bucolic (8), Pure and Modern Milk reads twentieth century dairy production as predicated on reciprocal interaction between the city and countryside. This allows Smith-Howard to excavate with the movement of milk between these two locales, both in terms of literal production pathways and in the ideological framing of the substance and its products. At the heart of this book is a dialectic between the pastoral and pastural; between milk as a natural product, and as something sanitized–made safe–by new technology.

As one would expect, then, this is a thorough volume. Smith-Howard explains that her book’s methodology is one which seeks to “explain [the] physical settings, economic structures, and political mechanisms through which [purchasing] took place and became meaningful” (9). This excitingly ambitious task sees Pure and Modern Milk turn to a range of primary sources: “the papers of consumer organizations, government bodies, surveys of consumer behavior conducted by dairy organizations, cost-of-living surveys, and women’s magazines and advertisements” (9). Smith-Howard’s extensive consultation of commercial documents–the sort of material evidence increasingly the substance of such studies[1]–both answers her queries and complicates them. She writes,

What emerges from such a history is not a simple story about milk, but a history of the evolution of consumer society (11).

This, in turn, points to a wider theoretical framing still: for “[t]o take milk’s history seriously is to understand the compromises, complexity, and challenges involved in our dependence on other organisms for our very sustenance” (11). If it sounds like this assessment of what must be understood might lead to an overly-detailed attempt to understand it, Smith-Howard’s study is reassuringly clear-eyed. There are undoubtedly more interesting aspects to Pure and Modern Milk than its style, but nevertheless its clear prose deserves mentioning, if only to note how well it allows technical processes which might in other hands feel turgidly digressive–such as artificial insemination and the assessment of fallout-contaminated milk–to be integrated fluently (85, 134-5).

Smith-Howard’s evident skill at handling these specialized subjects is particularly fortunate given how necessary they are to Pure and Modern Milk’s central thrust. Milk’s “purity,” she argues, carries two competing narratives: on the one hand unsullied natural origins, and on the other the industrial processes that allow milk to be cleansed of its actual and perceived contaminants. In this sense, her study takes up one of the fundamental dialectics of twentieth century consumerism, and indeed food marketing today: that which advocates progress while resisting untempered appeals to new technology that may be off-putting for the average consumer. As a product that passes from the countryside to the city, milk is particularly illustrative of this marketing dyad.

Pure and Modern Milk’s chapter on butter is particularly revealing on the subject, presenting the seeming contradiction of packaging which both

“assured consumers that even as the world around them changed, their butter remained authentic and simple” and simultaneously “highlighted creameries as modern manufacturers” (56).

The complex interplay of milk’s nature and nurture had significant ramifications at the point of production and of sale; in following milk goods from the dairy to the self-service grocery, Smith-Howard elegantly lays out how this relationship affected milk at each stage of production.

If the journey from cow to glass is the core narrative of Pure and Modern Milk, it also serves as a carrier for a larger story. Just as the relationship at the center of this book reflects general twentieth century concerns, so does milk’s passage along the supply chain serve to illustrate the evolving journey of commercialism after 1900. Smith-Howard’s analysis of the constant intersection between the changing dairy industry and the juggernaut of commercialism, which gained radically increased traction over the period, is well buttressed with specific examples: how the war impacted the marketing and sales of skim milk (76), and how the rise of supermarket shopping prompted manufacturers to opt for packaging designed to induce impulse buys (81).

Accordingly, Pure and Modern Milk is attentive to points of contact between dairy production and neighboring industries, recounting, to cite one example, how casein was used to manufacture products that ranged from paper to high fashion items (72-5). If there is a flaw in the book, it is perhaps that these broader contexts might have sometimes been made more explicit; Pure and Modern Milk’s well-applied methodology and deftness of thought makes for a text that might easily have resonance beyond environmental history and indeed beyond food studies, and Smith-Howard could justifiably have been more ambitious in stating her work’s implications at certain points.

Nevertheless, this is a minor point compared to what has been included, and the interested reader will have little trouble spotting the parallels between Smith-Howard’s observations and their own fields. As the epilogue makes evident, Pure and Modern Milk has much to offer in terms of informing investigations into marketing and consumer habits, including contemporary ones. This is, ultimately, the book’s gift: a reminder of the complex social and economic depths that lie beneath the visible surface of food production.

[1] See Material Powers: Cultural Studies, History and the Material Turn, ed. Tony Bennett, Patrick Joyce (London: Routledge, 2010), 7.


Stephanie Boland is a graduate student in modernism at the University of Exeter. She has published in, among others, the Cambridge Quarterly and Times Literary Supplement.

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