GUESTWORDS: Where’s the Beef . . . Fat?

By Steve Rideout

   When you need the fat, you need the fat. Jud Banister’s laundry machinery used a particular type of beef fat, and the East Hampton Village mayor routinely filled his need from the local butcher. But times in World War II’s 19th month were different, and suddenly government regulations threw a wrench into things.
    The crisis surfaced during a butcher shop visit to pick up some suet — more specifically, the portion called cod fat (check that out on Google) that greased the mangle at his Race Lane steam laundry. The fat went into the mangle’s lubricating box, keeping the machinery humming despite high operating temperatures.
    The Internet is great. We have family photos from two of Jud’s laundries. The first, on Cedar Street, burned down in 1909. The other photos, taken in 1913 and 1914, show exterior and interior shots of the Race Lane laundry. But the interior photos included equipment that meant little to us without expert review.
    This is where the Internet was handy. A search of “Steam Laundry” produced a link to “Steam Laundries: Gender, Technology, and Work in the United States and Great Britain, 1880-1940,” written by Arwen P. Mohun. Jackpot! Her book is a comprehensive description of steam laundries during the time Jud worked in and owned one. She describes the equipment, including the mangle, used for ironing large, flat pieces such as sheets, towels, and tablecloths. Even better, Ms. Mohun, a professor of history at the University of Delaware, offered to review our photographs and describe the equipment and work site.
    Sure enough, all the key items emerge in one of two interior photographs from 1914, including the washing machine, extractor, and aptly named mangle. Probably not the same one he used in 1943, but functionally the same brute of several thousand pounds and very hot and dangerous to the imprudent. Ms. Mohun describes feeding flat pieces into it as invitations to burns or crushed fingers and hands, giving too-cruel meaning to its U.S. namesake. The British preferred the less belligerent name, calender.
    “Suet for Mangle Takes Mayor’s Coupons” was The Star’s June 17, 1943, story headline. The Office of Price Administration, then in full swing, controlled prices and distribution of many commodities critical to the war effort and in short supply. Families received coupons required to purchase many otherwise common items. One was beef and, as it turned out, any portion of the beef critter.
    “Ever since the laundry has had the mangle Mayor Banister has sent down to the butcher shop to get several hunks of low-grade suet to keep the mangle running smoothly over the town’s flat pieces of laundry,” declared the article.
    But the butcher was told to collect beef coupons for suet, as it was considered food, and the mayor would need to use seven of his personal allotment to purchase cod fat. The Star described his situation: “Sort of a ‘No tickee — no suey’ for the laundryman.” His option was to give up his personal coupons or apply for a supplemental allocation. He did the latter, was granted a four-week supply, and, as The Star noted, “the mangle will be well lubricated and he will still have his regular number of coupons.”
    Jud’s predicament was covered by the New York City newspapers and radio shows, stimulating The Star’s editor, Arnold Rattray, to take on the Office of Price Administration the following week. Titled “Grease the Machinery,” his editorial gave the background and proceeded to question the government’s well-intended, but perhaps misguided, efforts to help the war effort and distribute scarce supplies on the home front.
    Mr. Rattray reminded his readers that the same coupons Jud needed to purchase suet for the mangle were the same ones needed to buy “steaks, chops, fish or even a hunk of liver for the cat.” By the time the editorial ran, Jud was issued extra coupons to cover his need for cod fat, but it was too perfect an example of government gone awry. Something was seriously wrong in Washington, and as editor he had a responsibility to lay out the inanity.
    “What made the story of interest to metropolitan newspapers and radio was the fact that this East Hampton incident of Coupons for Suet was symbolic of a lot of things in the highly complicated machinery of our wartime rationing program. So complicated in fact that lubrication is needed, just as much for the OPA as the mayor’s laundry mangle,” wrote Mr. Rattray. Jud’s predicament, though resolved for his purposes, provided the perfect backdrop to criticize a program that had profound impacts on people despite their understanding the necessity to ration scarce goods and materials.
    Mayor Jud and the village board certified a quiet election returning two incumbents, C. Louis Edwards and Charles O. Gould, to the board two days before his “beef” over suet, but the East Hampton Steam Laundry carried on after receiving extra ration coupons.
    Solving the cod fat problem may have been easier than finding skilled labor by war’s end. Star ads show Jud routinely seeking women workers. He probably couldn’t afford to pay what many were making in shops and factories supporting the war. “Where’s the beef?” was replaced by “Where are the women?”

   Steve Rideout, a frequent contributor of “Guestwords,” regularly visits East Hampton to research family history. He lives in Shutesbury, Mass.


Mr. Rideout, Enjoyed your article "Where's the Beef...Fat?" The irony is that today the "beef" is the fat cat politicians in Washington and the "fat" is now pork that they add to bills that line their pockets. Mr. Rattray's statement "Something was seriously wrong in Washington, and as editor he had a responsibility to lay out the inanity." is more then true today. With our nearly 17 trillion dollar deficit I wouldn't be so kind as to call it inanity but "insanity". Unfortunately, most of those who own or control the mainstream media do not have the integrity of Arnold Rattray.