GREENWICH, N.Y. — The sun slowly rises on a new day. The street of a neighborhood is mostly empty and quiet except for one vehicle, a milk truck, which pulls over onto the curb. Out comes the Milk Man dressed in distinguishing cap and bow tie, carrying a basket of milk bottles, which he leaves on the front stoop of a home. The glass bottles give a clink sound as he sets them down before he scurries back to his truck to continue on to the next stop.
You have probably seen a version of this scene before in a movie or television show, or if you are of a certain age may remember seeing this in real life. Milk delivery services were an important part of the dairy industry for over a century. In honor of Dairy Month, lets take a look back at this once necessary, though not entirely forgotten service.
Milk delivery services began as the United States increasingly urbanized and industrialized in the first half of the 19th century. Prior to this rural families often had their own cow from which they would get their own milk and make other dairy products. As people moved to more urban areas, there was no room to keep a cow, so people began purchasing milk from local farms. It is reported that the first home milk deliveries began in Vermont in 1785.1
The earliest days of milk delivery involved the milkman bringing milk in large metal cans pulled by horse and carriage, or by the milkman himself. (For any musical theater fans in the audience, the main character in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye, is a good example of this earlier version of the milkman.) At each stop, residents would bring out whatever containers they had and the milkman would fill their cups, jars, jugs, or whatever they brought out. The perishable nature of milk and the lack of refrigeration in homes at this time meant that milk deliveries occurred on a daily basis since it was the safest and most cost-effective way to get people milk and other perishables.2 The milkman became a regular visitor to peoples’ homes, much like the mailman.
Milk delivery got an advancement in the 1870s with the invention of the glass milk bottle.3 In 1878 the first glass milk bottle was patented and was called the Lester Milk Jar. Milk began selling in glass bottles a year later. In subsequent decades the bottles improved to include caps and individual designs. Glass bottles were readily adopted into the delivery system since they were easier to deliver and transport, and they made it easier for milkmen to track how much milk customers were requesting.
Eventually the automobile replaced the cart and the milk delivery system as we remember it came about. Customers would order their milk the day before. The next day the milkman would place a customer’s order in an insulated box on the front porch, or into a milk box that was built into the side of the house. Some older houses and apartment buildings still have these milk boxes, but they are often painted over or sealed shut nowadays. The milkman would take his payment and remove the empty bottles which would be washed and used for another day’s deliveries.4
Milk delivery was commonly used well into the 1900s, however its use began to decline greatly after World War II for a number of reasons. By the 1930s and 1940s many homes had refrigerators as opposed to ice boxes meaning milk could be kept for longer periods of time and daily delivery was not needed for as many households. In the 1940s and 1950s many families moved to the suburbs of cities which made for longer distances for milkmen to travel each day leading to higher costs of production.
However, the biggest reason for the decline of milk delivery was the invention of pasteurization and the grocery store. Supermarkets allowed for all kinds of foods to be purchased in one location instead of many specialty stores, which were common beforehand. With most Americans owning cars by the mid-1900s, going to the supermarket to get milk and other food items became more convenient than having milk delivered and needing to use it every day. Pasteurization, a process that lengthens milks shelf life, further lessened the need for daily delivery of milk.5 While milk delivery services continued into the 1960s, by the early 1970s it was almost entirely gone.
This is not the end of the milkman’s story, however. In recent years interest in milk delivery has grown. With more consumers interested in local food or wanting to shop in a way that produces less waste, some dairy farms and creameries are offering delivery of their milk and other local products to their communities. These consumers know their milk is fresh and where it comes from, and they participate in a service that produces less waste. The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to more interest and use of milk delivery services as a way to receive food staples without leaving the home or to get products that may have been affected by pandemic-induced supply chain issues.
1. “The Day the Milk Man Went Away: A Quick History of Home Milk Delivery,” Drink Milk in Glass Bottles, accessed June 16, 2022, http://www.drinkmilkinglassbottles.com/a-quick-history-home-milk-delivery/#:~:text=The%20first%20home%20milk%20deliveries,the%20milkman%20would%20fill%20it.
2. “A Brief History of Home Milk Delivery,” The Dairy Alliance (blog), June 3, 2020, https://thedairyalliance.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-home-milk-delivery/.
3. The Day the Milk Man Went Away: A Quick History of Home Milk Delivery,” Drink Milk in Glass Bottles, accessed June 16, 2022, http://www.drinkmilkinglassbottles.com/a-quick-history-home-milk-delivery/#:~:text=The%20first%20home%20milk%20deliveries,the%20milkman%20would%20fill%20it.
5. “A Brief History of Home Milk Delivery,” The Dairy Alliance (blog), June 3, 2020, https://thedairyalliance.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-home-milk-delivery/.
Chandler Hansen grew up and lives in Easton, NY. He is a graduate of Gordon College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in History. He serves as a writer and editor for Morning Ag Clips.