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A History of The American Milkman

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When milk’s involved, magic happens. We’re partnering with Milk Life to learn all about the essential role the farm-fresh beverage plays in elevating everyday recipes—and sharing recipes, tools, and tips for incorporating milk’s rich and smooth texture into wholesome at-home cooking. Read up here.

If ever you begin to itch for that particular brand of old-timey, Rockwellian Americana—the kind that watching something like "It’s a Wonderful Life" or "Meet Me in St. Louis" will scratch—might I point you, instead, to stock photos of milkmen?

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Milkman, Dec 1936.
Milkman, Dec 1936. Photo by Upplandsmuseet Länsmuseum för Uppsala län (via Flickr)

It is a dive down a recognizable and fascinating rabbit hole: You’ll meet this guy, capped and bow-tied and shining like a new penny. And this guy (who is actually a Brit), wading through post-bomb raid chaos to deliver milk to his customers. Everyone pictured is these old photos seems well-scrubbed and cheerful, and the collective picture is nostalgic and wholesome as milk itself.

About 30 percent of milk was still delivered to homes in the 1960s, according to USDA agricultural surveys—and prior to that, had been the most common way consumers got their milk: Because many homes were without refrigeration and relied on another bygone home-delivery service, the iceman, a more or less daily milk delivery ensured that milk could be used without worrying about spoilage. Additionally, most other regular staples—produce, meat, bread, and dry goods—had their own dedicated storefronts. Because milk was so perishable, delivering it daily was the safest and most cost-effective way to get milk (and a few other perishables, like butter and eggs) to customers.

Here’s how it worked: Customers would place their order with the milkman and he (almost always he) would deliver it the next day to either an insulated box on the front stoop or, in some homes, to double-doored cubbies built into the side of a house. The milkman, carrying bottles of milk either in a truck or on a cart pulled along by a horse or sometimes a very burly dog, would open the cubby’s outside door and set the milk inside (and removing the empty bottles—and payment—left for him). The family could then open a second door on the inside of the house and remove the milk. Glass bottles, sealed with a little waxed foil cap, provided both a unit for delivery (so people could order, say, 3 bottles—or 2 bottles whole milk and 1 bottle cream) and a convenient, efficient way to distribute (as opposed to the former method of portioning milk house-by-house out of a metal milk barrel). The milkman would pick up empty glass bottles along the route, clean them, and reuse them.

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"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds"—it’s the U.S. Post Office’s unofficial motto, but it could be said of the old-timey milkman, too. It was none of those things that stopped the milkman’s faithful route, in the end, but something else: post-World War II suburbanization.

As neighborhoods became more spread-out, the milkman’s route elongated. As Matt Novak writes in a 2012 Smithsonian.com article, “he would need to spend more time driving his truck between deliveries, which increased his costs. As the milkman’s expenses increased he was forced to raise prices on his products, which caused families to just tack on milk [...] to their supermarket grocery lists.”

A sight for sore eyes—for a milkman.
A sight for sore eyes—for a milkman. Photo by Bobbi Lin

The advent of the supermarket—and the contemporaneous and steady rise in car ownership, which made it easier for folks to get to the store—further eliminated the need for the milkman’s services. People became more interested in convenience and in food safety than in the milkman himself: Ads like this one from 1959, which depicts a little girl receiving a milk delivery in waxed paper cartons rather than glass bottles, promoted a “modern, health-protecting package” that is “Used only once… Only by you... Pure-Pak is then discarded like other modern food packages.” And, “Mothers appreciate the safety of this shatterproof container.” It’s a funny ad, seeming to land smack-dab between old-fashioned milk delivery (a milkman and his truck are both pictured, and the ad urges consumers to “ask your milkman” for the Pure-Pak packaging) and a more modern shopping experience (“You’ll never go back to old-fashioned delivery again,” promises the ad, as well as, “available wherever milk is sold,” i.e. the supermarket).

As milk went into supermarkets’ refrigerated cases, pasteurization became routine, which helped increased its shelf life. Pasteurization also allowed the quality of the milk to be controlled. And to hold and transport all of that milk, larger containers than quart-sized milk bottles were needed, and so the insulated steel milk tank hit the road. Michigan was the first state to require pasteurization, in 1947, but Chicago began requiring pasteurization as early as 1908.

Novak notes in the Smithsonian.com article a 1961 comic by Arthur Radebaugh called “Closer Than We Think.” It suggests that the Milkman Of The Future’s load would be lifted by a helpful, self-driving, equine robot that would follow the milkman from house to house. (There’s no suggestion in the comic, even in the 1960s, that the milkman might be phased out entirely.) But instead of by milkman and robot steed, the milk of the future (that is, the milk of today) is carried by enormous tankard trucks not so different from the truck presented as a new technology in a 1931 copy of Popular Science: “the Giant Thermos Truck of Texas” set two large insulated “thermoses,” each with a 1,000-gallon capacity, on wheels. Each was filled with refrigerated milk, and the tanks would hold the milk at a safe temperature as the truck navigated between El Paso farms.

Photo by Bobbi Lin; design by Tim McSweeney

These days, trucks can carry up to 8,000 gallons (that’s nearly 70,000 pounds of milk!) at a time. The driver typically picks up milk from dairy farms, testing for temperature and antibiotics between stops, and carries it to a dairy processing facility, where it is separately pasteurized, homogenized, and packaged. Once packaged, it is loaded onto distribution trucks that carry the milk to grocery stores. This is, of course, how most of us get our milk today.

In some places, though, and particularly in rural areas, milk delivery seems to be nosing its way back. The draws are access to small, local dairies; the convenience of not having to head to a store so regularly; and a sort of friendly nostalgia, one associated with a slower way of life, trust in the “honor system” method of payment (i.e. leaving money in the milk chest by the front door), being on a friendly first-name basis with your neighbors. Other news outlets, like NPR in 2014, have suggested the milkman’s return. In some setups, reported the New York Times in 2012, customers can even place their orders with “milkmen” on the internet. Just plug “home milk delivery” into Google and up will pop quite a number of dairy delivery services, often offering not only milk (sometimes in returnable glass bottles) but also cream and eggs, as well as value-added products like butter, yogurt, cheese, and juices, which help make the delivery service financially viable. And many, driven by a local-food ethos, embrace a neighborly milkman (almost always men) persona—like Manhattan-based milkman service called Manhattan Milk: two men who are, considering how many sordid “milkman’s kid” jokes there are, almost laughably attractive, and whose aim is to “give back to the community and keep "Mom and Pop" business' [sic] alive.” It’s not altogether so different from the old days of milkmen—just sans the tidy white suits.

Make magic with milk this fall. We're partnering with Milk Life to learn all about milk and the incredible things cows can do—and arming you with recipes, tools, and tips for making use of milk’s superpowers while we’re at it. Have a look at just how essential its seat at the table is here.

Tags: Milk Pep, dairy, milkman