A Brief History Of Home Milk Delivery

By: Roger Taylor

The first home milk deliveries occurred in 1785 in rural Vermont. Most early customers were parents who had no means of giving breast milk to their infants — widowed fathers, mothers who could not lactate for medical or motivational reasons, and packs of wolves nursing abandoned babies. Cows of this time period briefly became known as “nature’s wet nurses,” a nickname whose spread corresponded, much to the distress of ranchers, to a drop in beef sales.

The premise of delivering milk door-to-door seems obvious enough in our enlightened times, but it took several decades to perfect. For instance, it wasn’t until 1810 that Decatur-based businessman Walter T. Shibley realized that more milk could be delivered per trip if some sort of container were used. A period of trial-and-error testing followed, with the glass bottle eventually winning out over the sheep’s stomach, the whittled wooden tube and the very-tightly-woven basket. In 1812, exhausted milkmen convinced Shibley to invest in multiple bottles so that customers could dispense the milk on their own schedule, saving milkmen the need to make a trip every time someone wanted a drink.

Other innovations followed, some adopted and some discarded.

For a period in the 1840s, John O’Sullivan of Utica delighted customers with his “Fresh From The Teat” campaign, wherein milkmen would bring the cow itself to customers’ doors and extract milk on the front lawn. People loved the service, but the cows became prone to performance anxiety, complained about unfair working conditions, unionized, and eventually drove O’Sullivan out of business.

Pre-refrigeration, many attempts were made to keep milk from spoiling on hot days, often by faster delivery or the addition of coolants like ice or, more typically, ammonia. Many ideas were patented, and nearly all were instant failures. The Milk Cannon of Jersey City was simple enough in concept, but the complex ballistic trajectories required the employment of several expensive mathematicians, and rounding errors were often fatal. Dr. Goodfriend’s Rot Buffer — a novel contraption that involved surrounding bottles of fresh milk with even more bottles of rotten milk, under the pretext that the poisonous miasma would be unable to penetrate the rot wall — was discontinued one day after it was put into use when it became clear that it didn’t work even a little. Its inventor was hanged for “flagrant and flamboyant quackery.” Sergeant Stephen’s Sturgeon Stirrer did enjoy some success, as the antimicrobial peptides of the dead fish really did help keep the milk fresher, but flavor concerns and religious objections kept it a niche product.

In the 1880s, a successful marketing campaign by the firm of Howard, Farmer and McGurk briefly convinced most Americans that sophisticated palates preferred spoiled milk, and the problem — at least for the milk producers, who didn’t have to worry about the diarrhea that came from drinking the stuff — was temporarily solved.

Home milk delivery declined throughout the early twentieth century owing to the public’s increasing distaste for convenience. Though meant as a metaphor, the political slogan of Marshall Ward’s Huddled Masses Party in the 1920s neatly captured the spirit of the times: “The milk of toil never spoils.” The rival Teeming Masses Party had less success with “The milk that’s self-fetched is never retched.”

The sector continued to suffer setbacks throughout the 1950s and 60s. First came the widespread availability of refrigerated station wagons, effectively turning every suburban housewife into her own delivery service. Later, a series of lurid sex scandals had the dual consequence of disquieting older customers and attracting to the industry’s recruitment centers all manner of scoundrel, hedonist and reprobate. The death knell, of course, came with a disastrous move in the 1970s to cut costs by centralizing all milk production and distribution to one large facility in Birmingham, Alabama. The move did lead to lower warehousing costs, but the milkmen on the California route found the daily round trip to be tiring, and speeding fines accumulated quickly.

Today, home milk delivery is extinct. However, its spirit lives on in the hearts of thousands of dedicated historical reenactors. At disused parking lots across the nation, they converge fortnightly to don crisp white uniforms, drive refurbished trucks, live out their filthiest sexual fantasies, and, one suspects, drink lots of milk.


9 thoughts on “A Brief History Of Home Milk Delivery

  1. I was born in 1950 so still remember those good old days. We could also get flavored milk which the dairy delivered to our schools.

  2. I can still hear the sound of glass bottles delivered outside my door, it was a nice sound to be woken up with,. Please bring back the milk in glass bottles it tastes so much better.

  3. No mention is made of the milk boxes that were built into the side of the house, usually near back door or off the driveway. It had 2 doors. The housewife would open the inside door and move around the metal arrows showing what and how many she wanted the milkman to leave, e.g. 2 quart bottles of pasteurized milk, 1/2 lb butter., 1 dozen eggs. The milkman opened the little on the outside.

    My grandfather’s house in Buffalo, NY had one. I found another one at neighbor’s house that was going to be bulldozed. It is a Pryanico Milko-Box. I gave it to our historical society.

  4. No one seems to remember that milk was delivered in trucks with nothing but ice blocks. The driver would deliver the milk and break off a chunk of ice and place it in the milk box outside everyone’s house. I remember 90° days, the milk truck leaking all the way up the street, and our milkman would break off chunks off ice on those hot days and give them to the neighborhood kids. Nice memories for sure.

  5. Every generation will end up thinking, “good old days”. Ah, the kids back the were never into any serious troubles but the kids today are terrible & this is horrible today but back when whatever days, just lovely. This was even true of Elizabeth 1 in late 1500s when she talked about the old days of her father. Truth is, right now in 2018, the poor in places like the States are living many times better than the most wealthy of 100 years ago. Medical care to electricity. The poor who live in a one room apartment have access to much more & better than the ones in 1918 who lived in 70 room estates.

    What was it like for the middle class in 1918? The poor? What was it like without indoor plumbing, heat or AC or electricity or antibiotics? It was a hell on earth so good riddance to the good old days. The milk back then delivered was filthy. Often, it spoiled. People died from it all so it might look pretty thinking of a milk bottle on the porch or a man going down the street with half warm & half cold bottles as ice was melting but it’s not a pretty sight.

    I lived through it from 1935-1969. It was a mess. 1970, things started to improve.
    Time to stop dwelling on the past, live in the moment while being ready to learn to live in the future.

  6. I was very a very young child (3-4 yrs.) when the milk man delivered to us in the early 1960’s by Jessup Dairy Co.where we lived in Lake View Terrace, CA. I have fond memories of those times and still recall the sound of the glass bottles against the metal crates! Also I remember the Helms bakery. trucks blowing their whistles if you needed bread and things! I miss those days ?

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