Needham History Center & Museum Needham History Center & Museum, Needham Massachusetts 02492

Clean Your Plate

Needham & Public Health Reform in the 1800s

— by Gloria Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum



Boston in the 1800s was a reformer’s paradise.  All of the major social reform movements – Temperance, Prison Reform, Abolition, Women’s Suffrage – had an advocate base in Boston. A common thread among many of these movements was no less a goal than the eradication of poverty, which was seen as the prime cause of crime, drunkenness and the other social ills. One approach was to raise the standards of cleanliness, nutrition and public health.

The most innovative public health initiatives of the later 19th Century sought to reduce the incidence of disease by addressing the sources of contagion, rather than trying to alleviate the symptoms. Among these was the Pure Food movement, which sought to eliminate contamination in both the manufactured and farmed food supply.  It held that greater cleanliness at the site of production would result in a cleaner food supply overall. This in turn would reduce the incidence of parasitic disease and food-borne illnesses such as trichinosis and tuberculosis.

Many of the hygienic farming techniques developed in the United States in the last century are in use today by farmers in the developing world.

Needham has been able to play a role in these movements because it has always enjoyed easy access to the business and intellectual resources of the greater Boston area. In Colonial times, the Charles River provided a link between the towns. After 1850, rail lines built to carry Needham’s gravel to fill the Back Bay also provided a convenient commuter route for a rising professional class. The construction of Route 128, “America’s Technology Highway”, in the 1950s carried the intellectual capital of the universities out to the land-rich western suburbs, to create a hub of technological innovation.

This article will focus on Needham’s role in the Pure Food movement, especially the stock- raising experiments of William Emerson Baker, and the “hands-free” milking techniques developed by the Walker-Gordon Farms.


Farming in Needham

Farming in Needham has always required some ingenuity. Tucked into a loop in the Charles River, Needham ground is low-lying and damp. The familiar English crops – wheat, barley and rye – could not thrive in Needham’s poor soils. Even Indian Corn, a staple of the new Massachusetts Bay Colony, had limited success.

Instead of grain, Needham farmers relied upon the products more suited to their riverside lands – garden crops, hay, and especially cattle. By 1900, there were eight commercial dairies in Needham, the mainstay of its agricultural economy.



The Walker-Gordon Laboratories:

“Milk Untouched by Hand from Cow to Consumer”

Founded in Boston in 1891, Walker-Gordon’s original product was not milk, but baby formula. Dr Thomas Rotch, pediatrician at the Harvard Medical School, determined that infant mortality could be greatly reduced by the scientific feeding of infants whose mothers were unable to produce sufficient milk. He turned to Gustavus Gordon, a scientist and reformer from Milwaukee, to develop a formula for modifying cow’s milk for infant nutrition. Gordon and his business partner, publisher George Walker of Boston, established the first of several Walker-Gordon Laboratories at 203 Clarendon Street.

From the first, the company’s main difficulty was obtaining milk of consistent quality and sufficient purity for infant use.  Milk production and handling was notregulated, and much of the available milk was tainted with intestinal parasites or tuberculosis.  In order to control the production of their milk, Walker-Gordon purchased 8 acres in Needham in 1892 (and a few years later, a larger tract of land in Plainsboro, NJ).  On their farm, the cattle were maintained in an entirely controlled environment and fed on specially-grown feed.  The milk was tested daily for bacteria and pathogens.  Both cattle and staff were give frequent medical checkups.


The company also developed technical innovations – such as the world-famous ROTOLACTOR – that allowed them to increase production of milk without compromising their standards of purity. By the 1950s, however, business began to fall off. Federal regulation of milk standards had reduced the need for Walker-Gordon’s stringent (and costly) cleanliness practices. Home milk delivery, upon which Walker-Gordon depended, was not as convenient for housewives as the supermarket. By 1960, the Needham farm had been closed, and the land was sold. The farm is now the site of The Walker Home and School. The Plainsboro farm was also sold, and the company closed its doors in 1971.



The Rotolactor was one means that Walker-Gordon developed to speed up production and control costs while maintaining standards. The Rotolactor was a completely “hands-free” milking system, a milking merry-go-round. The cows entered the Rotolactor and were thoroughly washed. After the teat cups were attached by a dairyman, the rest of the process was entirely automatic – milk was extracted, weighed and sent through a chilled tubing system to the processing and bottling facility without further contact with humans or air. The cow and the milking stall were washed down, and the cow released to her stall for feeding.

The Rotolactor was developed at the Plainsboro farm in 1930. A smaller version was built and displayed at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. The World’s Fair machine was installed in the Needham farm in 1940, where it operated until 1960.

Welcome to DairyLand

In addition to the milking operation, the both the Plainsboro and Needham farms were public attractions. Visitors were permitted limited access to the cow barns, and could view to Rotolactor four times daily. Kids loved to watch the Rotolactor, and sample the farms’ dairy products and ice cream at the Dairy Bar. Walker-Gordon’s specialty products, such as yogurt and Acidophilus Milk, were available to sample, and you could always take a quart of ice cream home when you left.


William Baker’s HYGERIA

Pampered Pigs and Hygienic Hotels

William Emerson Baker was born in Roxbury in 1828. As a young man, he joined forces with a Boston tailor named William Grover, and together they formed the Grover and Baker Sewing Machine Company. The Company was phenomenally successful, and Baker retired in 1868, a very rich man at the age of forty.

After retirement, Baker purchased nearly 800 acres in the southwest corner of Needham. In the twenty years that followed, Baker filled his summer estate, The Ridge Hill Farms, with as assortment of amusements, attractions and exhibits.

Although it was widely regarded as an amusement park, Ridge Hill Farms was in fact the physical embodiment of Baker’s opinions – often radical and always provocative – on American politics and society. Baker was deeply committed to social reform; among the causes he supported were the reconciliation of North and South, the establishment of a public health service, religious tolerance, and funding for education institutions such as the Boston Museum of Art, the Boston Society for Natural History, the Boston Aquarium, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Public Health was the cause dearest to Baker’s heart. He espoused the then-radical notion that many causes of disease and debility could be eliminated by a more sanitary approach to food production and preparation. Several of Baker’s attractions were devoted to promoting the practice of Hygienic Farming and Sanitary Cookery: “The prevention of disease among our general citizens, as well as in the army corps, is of more consequence than attention for its cure by the Medical Department.”

In 1881, Baker petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature to allow him to secede his land from Needham and establish an independent Hygienic Village, to be called HYGERIA. He also requested tax-exempt status on the grounds that his discoveries would benefit all citizens of Massachusetts, and save the Commonwealth far more than they lost in taxes. The beneficial example of Hygeria would “…induce the people of this Commonwealth to practice such sanitary economies and household reforms as shall tend to diminish crime and disease and improve the vigor of the race.”

The Needham Selectmen opposed Baker’s petition, and it languished in legislative committees for four years before it was refused. Needham was unwilling to lose Baker’s estate, which amounted to nearly 6% of the town’s taxable acreage. Furious, Baker accused them of “strangling the Child of my Heart”, and threatened to leave “Suicidal Needham” and establish Hygeria in another state – a threat he had not enough time to carry out before his early death in 1888.

The Sanitary Piggery

” ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’. The Hog is naturally much more cleanly in its habits than many of those who say he isn’t.”

In June of 1875, Baker threw a huge party to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone for his new Sanitary Piggery. 2500 invited guests attended the event, including Governor Gaston of Massachusetts, Mayor Cobb of Boston, State senators and representatives, generals, members of foreign legations, and delegations of the 5th Maryland Regiment, the South Carolina Light Infantry, and the 5th Massachusetts Regiment.

In the Sanitary Piggery, the pigs were kept in strictly clean conditions and given wholesome food. It was even rumored that the porkers were provided with little beds and little silk sheets – an unlikely accommodation, but certainly in keeping with Baker’s sense of humor. Baker believed that the usual method of pig-keeping, penned in filthy sties or allowed to roam free and eat trash, bred diseased animals with tainted meat: “The flesh of those swine fed on city garbage is liable to be unfit for market, as this garbage is often fermented and sour. And thus the City of Boston, by the disposition of its garbage, directly aids…in filling our hospital wards with patients diseased from eating unwholesome pork.”

Pigs celebrating, on the invitation to Baker’s Corner-Stone Piggery Party.

The Charity Reservation

Along with the Sanitary Piggery, several establishments on Baker’s estate were dedicated to the study and promotion of Pure Food principles. These were grouped into the southwest corner, in the area known as Mount Charity.  Baker’s piggery, cattle barns, and other livestock were kept in the Charity Reservation.


The Massachusetts Institute of Cookery and the Ridge Hill Laboratories were established to develop and teach the methods of Sanitary Cookery, including the hygienic farming of livestock, the elimination of adulteration and additives in food, understanding spoilage and maintaining freshness, and the scientific principles of sanitary food preparation.

Cooks trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Cookery were employed to cook for the guests at Baker’s various hotels and restaurants. The Hotel Wellesley was the very last word in luxury accommodation, with 159 guest rooms, 12 toilets and 5 baths. The main dining room could seat 600 people, and there were smaller rooms for private parties. The Trephis Home Hotel was a health resort, where guests could enjoy hiking in the pine woods and canoeing on the Charles in an atmosphere of clean air and pure water.

Named from the Greek, trephein, to nourish, and phagien, to eat, the Trepho-Phagian Institute was a charity organization whose purpose was to “distribute the delicacies of sanitary cooking, &tc, to the invalid poor”. Funds for this charity came from donors, shareholders, and the proceeds from Baker’s hotels, resorts and restaurants.