Ruling the Roost

Before the advent of factory farms and supermarkets, the self-made kings of New York City’s butter and egg trade lived extra large

The men in this picture are butter and egg men. They liked to joke that their wives were fat because they buttered their toast on both sides. Such was the reputation of butter and egg men, who were wealthy but regarded as a bit crude. Old money they were not.

This party is a celebration of the lives these men had made for themselves in America. It was held the night of January 20, 1940, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. It feels like a glamorous moment, but they are not glamorous men. They are, by and large, men who worked very long and very hard selling as much butter and as many eggs as they could. They were, for the most part, men who had come to America from someplace else and who made their way to the west side of lower Manhattan, to present-day TriBeCa, which in their time was the city’s butter and egg market. What the people in this photograph do not know is that, for most of them, things will never be better than they are on this night.

My maternal grandfather, Harry Ackerman, is the third man from the right in the front row of those standing—the short man with the round face. He is 43 and stands directly behind my grandmother. His eldest son, Herbert, is behind him. Herbert is 19 and my grandfather is preparing him to be a butter and egg man so that the sign on his store will one day read Harry Ackerman and Sons. But Herbert does not much want to be a butter and egg man.

The butter and egg men were members of the New York Mercantile Exchange. Every weekday morning they left their stores and walked around the corner to the redbrick exchange building where at 10:30 precisely they performed the ritual of setting the price of eggs for the nation. Then they walked back to their stores, along impossibly narrow streets crowded with trucks and with men doing the lifting and hauling that many of the wealthy butter and egg men had themselves done when they had first come to the trade. Their stores were narrow and deep and generally filled with little more than a desk, a phone, tubs of butter and thousands of eggs. They spent their days selling to restaurants, stores, ocean liners, each other and, for a while anyway, that newest form of retailing, the supermarkets.

The eggs came by truck if they were "nearbys"—New Jersey, Pennsylvania, upstate New York—and by train if from the Midwest. Butter and egg men sometimes traveled west to meet with the farmers with whom they did business and to whom they might one day send their sons to learn the poultry and dairy trades. The sons learned to candle—holding an egg up to a candle to determine its quality. And if their sons could not candle, say, six eggs at once the way the experienced candlers could, that was of little concern. Their sons were not going to be candlers. Their sons were going to be rich.

There was money to be made in eggs from untapped sources, like Utah, where a friend of my grandfather’s discovered the poultry equivalent of Córdoba, a land awash in eggs of marvelous quality, packaged lovingly by farmers who organized themselves into a cooperative that was, by 1940, shipping trainloads of eggs to New York City.

The party captured in this photograph celebrated the prosperity that would be shared by the Utah Poultry Producers and New York’s butter and egg men. My grandfather helped arrange the party. He loved parties. To him, a grand party epitomized the life he had created for himself, a life that must have looked impossible to him years earlier when, as a fatherless 17-year-old, he emigrated from the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Poland and entered the trade because his older brother was already selling eggs in New York City.

My grandfather reinvented himself in America as a butter and egg man. He looked at the successful men who had come before him and learned not only how to make a good business but how to dress and where to shop—Rogers Peet, & Company, on Broadway. He learned that the best parties were in the best hotels, like the Waldorf.

What my grandfather does not know, not on this night, is that within a year his son Herbert will be in the Army and that his second son, Arthur, will soon follow. And while my uncles would come home at the end of World War II, they returned to a world much different from the one that my grandfather hoped they might inherit. Herbert Weinberger, the son of another butter and egg man (and no relation to my uncle Herbert), would later recall driving around Long Island one day and seeing a sight that convinced him he had no future as a butter and egg man.

Every mile or so, it seemed, he saw a sign heralding the coming of a new supermarket for the people flocking to the new homes on the island. The supermarkets did not need the butter and egg men—they got their eggs from a new kind of farm—nor would the bushel and basket farmers on the back roads of Indiana and Ohio. The farms that supplied the supermarkets were vast facilities, some with a million chickens, whose eggs the new industrial farmers sold directly to the supermarkets.

Herbert Weinberger also recalled how the older butter and egg men did not heed his warnings about how the business was changing; men had prospered in the traditional ways since the mid-19th century, the older men said. So Herbert quit to become a commodities trader. By the late 1960s, the butter and egg market was gone.

I do not know who took this picture. It hangs in my office, where I sometimes catch myself staring at it, rapt. In this picture Harry Ackerman is younger than I am now, his 50-year-old grandson, who gazes at him from time to time imagining the pleasure he is taking in this night.

My uncle Herbert became a social worker. My uncle Arthur, an accountant, took a position with the Internal Revenue Service and, after my grandfather died, moved his family into the big house in Brooklyn that my grandfather had bought for my grandmother many years before—a monument to what he had made of himself selling butter and eggs.

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