A Brief Look at Cheese and the Early History of the United States

Daniel McElligott, a consultant with the Cheese Coalition, spent a semester last fall researching and developing a detailed examination of the role cheese played in early American history, entitled Farmsteads to Factories: Industrialization of the American Industry. Using existing research and delving into primary sources, Daniel utilized cheese as a window to examine changes in immigration patterns, gender roles, and industrialization in the early United States, specifically in New England, New York, and Wisconsin. Below is a brief look at some of Daniel's research and the effects each region had on the development of the American cheese industry. The complete research paper will be published later this year, as part of our effort to document the efforts of traditional cheesemakers in the United States.  

On the overall impact of these areas:

"There are three distinct regions of the United States of America, each providing certain innovations that are key to the development and reformation of the American dairy industry, New England, New York, and Wisconsin. First, examining colonial and post-revolutionary New England, hard-pressed cheeses made in English styles were introduced to the Americas and improved upon. Just to the west, the addition of Dutch style cheeses made in New York by early settlers, as well as the formal development of the cheese factory, brought their contribution to the “American Fondue Pot.” Cheese making followed alongside the settling of the westward expanding frontier, bringing Swiss, Alpine styles of cheese and bountiful industrial improvements to the American dairy industry, occurring mainly in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is where American cheese making would hit its stride, with an unprecedented number of varieties and overall volume of cheese being produced in America."

Cheese and Gender Roles in the Colonies and New England:

"The Puritan colonists brought strong English cheese traditions across the Atlantic to the New World. Many early colonists found in the Massachusetts Bay Colony emigrated from areas of England with a considerable dairy industry presence; including the colony’s governor, John Winthrop. As the American colonies expanded and the slave trade grew throughout the New World, cheese was among the goods that were traded for molasses in the West Indies and contributed economically to the growth of slave plantations in the southern colonies. Cheese and butter produced in the colonies of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut was also sold in English markets. As slavery spread throughout New England, female slaves subsidized much of the cheese making done at this time, working alongside white women in the lucrative dairy industry of the colonies....As the population of the colonies grew, so did the demand for dairy products. This increase in demand is where some of the earliest changes in the production and industry of American-made cheese can be seen. While cheese making was initially viewed as a domestic chore done by the women of the household, increased demand brought along the need for more workers and the role of men in the farmstead dairy industry elevated as the movement towards capitalism in agricultural industries brought about lasting changes in terms of traditional gender roles on American farms. Initially, men had little to do with the milking of cows and the products made from the milk, however increased urbanization created a demand for cheese that could not be fulfilled by urban populations, and required more cooperative work between the men and women of cheese producing farms. Men no longer simply consumed the milk, cheese, and butter made by their wives and daughters; they now had an active role in production. Men most likely began playing an active role in cheese making because cheese was no longer simply being made for domestic consumption, but was now being sold in markets throughout developing urban areas that did not have dairy farms. In her analysis of changing gender roles in American agricultural industries, Nancy Grey Osterud argued that this migration of men into cheese making and dairying was most likely an effort to maintain control over the primary sources of income within the households and reinforce traditional gender roles of men as the “bread-winner.”

New York and America's First Cheese Factory:

"The first cheese factory in the United States of America, constructed in 1851, was located in Rome, New York and was built by Jesse Williams and his sons. Constructed adjacently to the Black River Canal, the factory was powered by water wheels using the water from the canal. In 1851, Williams and his sons began pooling the milk from Williams’ sixty-five dairy cows as well as the milk from his sons’ individual herds to ensure consistency in the cheese they were producing, while also seeking to increase yield of production. Building upon the advancements of the milkshed storage systems of New England and southern New York, Wiliams and his sons, George and Dewitt C., decided to cooperatively combine the milk of their herds daily at their father’s farm. Jesse Williams came from a cheese making background; his grandfather had been a cheese maker in Connecticut and contributed to the movement of the cheese industry westward into New York State. Associated dairying presented Williams with the opportunity to steadily produce more cheese on a regular basis. Pooling the milk of his herd and the herds of his sons gave Williams more milk to work with, while saving him the time of milking all the cows that would be needed to produce an equivalent amount of milk on his farm alone, Williams was also able to begin purchasing milk from surrounding dairy farmers and further increase production in his factory. However, Jesse Williams was far from the first person to produce cheese in an associated dairying setting, associative cheese making has long been practiced in France with the cooperative production of Comte, an alpine style cheese produced by associated dairy farmers in French villages for almost one thousand years; as well as factory-like production of Gruyere in Switzerland. However, Williams was the first American cheese maker to successfully establish an American factory specializing in the associated regional production of cheese. Williams’ factory set the standard for a rapid uprising of cheese factories across New York State and across the United States of America throughout the second half of the 19th Century."

New Waves of Immigration Bring New Styles of Cheese To America: 

"While production of hard-pressed English style cheeses was still a dominant focus of production in Wisconsin, the presence of Swiss style cheeses like Emmental in this region cannot be ignored. Wisconsin began as a region focused on wheat production, however, during the latter half of the 19th Century it became evident to the Swiss immigrants and some domestic settlers of Wisconsin that the harsh winters were not conducive for the cultivation of wheat and thus farmers turned their attentions to dairying, specifically cheese and butter production, to sustain their livelihoods. Swiss style cheese production in Wisconsin began with the establishment of New Glarus in 1845. New Glarus was sought out by a group of Swiss immigrants consisting of twenty-seven families who traversed throughout the Midwest before deciding on the location for New Glarus in Wisconsin. New Glarus consisted of one thousand and two hundred acres of land, divided amongst the heads of sixty colonizing Swiss families, each family getting about 20 acres. In 1846, colonists from New Glarus purchased dairy cows from a nearby mining town and began making small farmstead cheeses in traditional Swiss methods. In his 1926 analysis of Wisconsin’s Swiss cheese industry, The Swiss Cheese Industry in Wisconsin, J.Q. Emery wrote of, “…cheeses no larger than a saucer, which could be held by a child, were the precursors of the two-hundred-pound Swiss cheese now standard.” The Swiss women of New Glarus dominated this small-scale production of farmstead cheese, as the male dominated factory system had not yet overtaken production of these varieties of cheese. Cheese production in New Glarus remained localized to individual farms until the incorporation of factories into the production of Swiss cheese in 1868, when Nicolas Gerber, a Swiss immigrant migrating west from New York, established a Limburger factory in New Glarus, and would eventually establish the first factory for the production of Swiss cheese in Washington Township, Wisconsin in 1869."

Daniel McElligott, Oldways Cheese Coalition Research Consultant

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