Hey, Mr. Milkman: Dairy Ephemera & Nostalgia

Hey, Mr. Milkman: Dairy Ephemera & Nostalgia

I have been thinking about milkmen a lot lately. The wholesome image of a clean-shaven man delivering fresh milk to your door every morning – something about it feels so wholesome and conjures visions of Norman Rockwell’s America. I find myself craving the nostalgia of these connections and images when the closest thing I have in my life to a milkman is the stranger leaving my groceries on my doorstep each week.

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This postcard shows a photo of an Omar milk truck and milkman.

I grew up in the era of milk cartons and plastic milk jugs. I remember my surprise when we first moved to Texas to find milk in glass bottles at the grocery store. It was from a local Jersey dairy and it was the richest, creamiest milk I had ever had. It was not even like milk – it was like drinking a milkshake. I am told this is how milk used to be. My grandparents tell me stories about milk coming from the next town over and delivered by the same milkman every few days. You knew his name and he would ask about your kids and, perhaps, even tell you gossip about your neighbors. This idyllic picture of community and local product is much harder to see, let alone participate in now, especially if you live in an urban area, but the memories live on in diary ephemera.

A Brief History of Milk

Man has been drinking milk for a long time. While experts cannot pinpoint an exact date, it is easy to say mankind has been drinking dairy for thousands of years. Milk was regularly consumed but was not always safe because of bacteria present. This also meant that milk was most often drunk warm, because access to cold storage was limited to the rich, and very fresh, because storage often led to bacteria growth. This all changed in 1863, when Louis Pasteur developed a means of briefly heating liquids, originally wines, in order to kill any bacteria present. As you can guess, pasteurization completely revolutionized the dairy business, making it possible to not only store milk for longer periods but in turn, making it possible to ship milk further and to a wider audience.

The Glass Milk Bottle

This demand for milk created a need for better packaging, stable enough to withstand transportation. It is believed the first milk bottles were used in the 1870s, but it was not until 1884, when an American invented the “Thatcher’s Common Sense Milk Jar,” that glass bottles saw widespread use. This bottle was sealed with a paper disk which was wax coated to completely seal the jar. This development set into motion decades of glass milk bottles, or jugs, being the primary packaging method for milk and dairy products.

In America in the early 1900s, milk was marketed as a healthy drink, with advertisements praising milk’s ability to improve bone and teeth development, increase vitality and improve athletic performance. Milk was incredibly popular in the first half of the 20th century, thus reaching the status of grocery staple. This demand meant a proliferation of dairies competing in the industry, giving rise to a wide range of bottle designs.

There are many different key bottle design elements, some of which are highly collectible. Early milk bottles are often clear or amber-colored glass, with an embossed design that details the dairy name and location. Early bottles are mostly round vessels, tapering to a smooth rounded lip. Some show signs of manufacture, like bubbles in the glass, or indentions in the glass from the production process. The original Thatcher’s bottle had an embossed design featuring a seated farmer milking a cow, this design has been widely reproduced and probably is the first thing that comes to mind when someone says “milk bottle.”

In the early decades of the 20th century, dairies switched to the applied color labels (ACLs) commonly used by soda companies on their bottles. This allowed for a wider range of design elements, typically in a single color. These are often collectible, with many people purchasing dairies near hometowns or bottles with novel designs.

In the late 1930s coated wax cartons were introduced. These cartons were significantly cheaper to produce, and by the 1950s glass milk bottles had been mostly phased out. There are a surprising number of dedicated milk bottle collectors. It is not uncommon to see forums and websites with active members sharing images of their collections, with many of these collections comprising hundreds of bottles. While it is easy to find thousands of milk bottle options online (some selling for hundreds of dollars), it is hard to beat the feeling of finding a milk bottle in an antique shop. My aunt has an ever-growing collection of bottles from the 20s and 30s, and I always feel great joy when I find another bottle to add to her collection. She has her collection on display in her kitchen, and along with her Smeg refrigerator, they create a welcoming environment that recalls mid-century America.

Other Dairy Ephemera

If collecting bottles is not your thing, there are plenty of other dairy ephemera options that can be collected or used in your home décor. The waxed paper caps used to seal glass bottles are cute, and collectibles in their own right.

Crates are an easy way to incorporate dairy antiques into your home décor. Metal milk crates would be perfect for storing blankets or kitchen supplies in a farmhouse-styled home. They add a rustic mix of nostalgia and functionality that does not feel kitschy or outdated.

Milk bottle carriers can also make great additions for bottle storage, whether that is organizing liquor bottles on a bar cart, or organizing oil and condiment bottles on a shelf or countertop.

While we may no longer have milkmen, and glass milk bottles are growing rarer, we can all incorporate that sense of community and history into our lives with milk bottle ephemera. Or at the very least, we can appreciate a good glass of milk the next time we have it. Just don’t forget the cookies.


Megan Shepherd is a curator, freelance writer, and artist. She has worked in fine art museums for a decade and holds two Master’s degrees in the field. When she takes a break from art she enjoys science-fiction books, antiquing, backpacking, and eating her weight in Dim Sum.
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