Where is the Milk Man?

The milkman unofficially died in the 1960s with the proliferation of common technological conveniences we now take for granted.  Several generations ago; however, home milk delivery facilitated by the milkman was just another fact of life like the internet for us today.

milkman war

The milkman held special significance during the war (rather his precious bounty did), as dairy became an irreplaceable part of a balanced diet that fed the war worker. Image by Fred Morley/Stringer, Hulton Archive, Getty Images.

The story of the milkman should be told in terms that contextualize it socially and economically, but the watered-down version of it goes like this:

In the mid-1800s, there were cows in cities to provide milk for urban centers.  Unfortunately for the city dwellers, the cows didn’t think living in the city was as fun as living on a pasture so they made their milk so foul that it forced the people to stop liking it.  Put differently, sanitation issues and consumer perception of city milk created a preference for milk sourced from the farm.  Mr. Milkman came to power around this time.

milkman jug

The glass bottles that pair with the contemporary milkman stereotype didn't always exist. Before the glass bottles, the milkman would pour milk from his large container into consumers' own jugs.

The adoption of retail route delivery by dairy firms large and small in successive decades to provide farm-sourced milk caused the milkman to become an integral component of everyday life.  He (not she, since the milk delivery profession was predominantly a man’s job) was a vital service provider, and only gained importance as the need for milk and dairy increased in the household.  The traditional milkman typically performed his duties with a trusty horse companion, though eventually, vehicles with refrigeration (although limited) capabilities succeeded the horse.  The end of the 1800s and the first few decades of the 1900s can be argued to be the milkman’s heyday.  However, fast forward a couple more decades to the 1960s and one will see the world of the milkman to be starkly different.  The typical household kitchen now had an electric powered-refrigerator (as opposed to an ice box), and in the garage sat a vehicle that could take the family to the local supermarket, stocked with carton upon carton of milk in their own industrial sized fridges.  Needless to say, the need for a milkman disappeared and sadly, the milkman himself disappeared as well.

milk in supermarket

Today's milk distributor. Image by Holly Harris, Riser.

On a less fatalistic note, there are still places in North America (to my limited knowledge) today like Washington (and even DC) that have firms who employ milkmen, either for novelty value or nostalgia.  (There are milkmen in India, though they don’t look quite like the one you readily conjure up in your head.)  Who knows, milkmen might come back: in line with growing consumer insistence for locally sourced groceries, a niche market for home-delivered farm-fresh dairy may very well develop!


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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Where is the Milk Man?

  1. Aka

    A very interesting history of the milkman. Let’s hope you are right about the return of this doorstep delivery convenience!!

  2. I like the old images of milkmen in your post. Cool. I have some other retro images of milkmen in a post that I created on my blog about the history of milkmen. http://www.milkmen.com/blog/the-history-of-milkmen.

  3. Pingback: Grandma Really Wasn’t That “Green”

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