The history of the milkman: Who killed him?


DID YOU STILL HAVE A MILKMAN growing up? (Do you look suspiciously like him? tee hee.) Historic New England has a really wonderful virtual-online exhibit about the history of milk home delivery from 1860-1960. The exhibit also helps explain some of the history of modern kitchens. Alas, we Retro Renovators know how the story ends. –>
I am the oldest child, born in ’59 (same year as Barbie) and I think that we actually still had a milkman delivering milk to our first little house on Buena Place in Carlsbad. The one with the countertop I once featured and mom said it was in that house! But I can’t find the post now, drats. Mom, can you verify we had a milkman?

Here in the Berkshires we still have a functional dairy, and they still do home delivery, hitting each town in the county one day per week.  High Lawn Farm, a really wonderful place, it’s like a fairy tale, more than 100 years old. The milk is wonderful, but it costs more, of course.  It comes from Jersey cows, and I think they say it has more protein and calcium and of course, none of those artificial hormones. On Saturdays in the summer I drive down (it’s just 2 or 3 miles away) and buy a half gallon of heavy cream. I then make the most delicious delectable ice cream in the world with a vintage electric (yes, I know…) ice cream churner that I got at a garage sale for five bucks.

The dairy! The milkman! The chocolate cows that make chocolate milk! All this is leading up to: Historic New England’s absolutely delightful virtual exhibit – From Dairy to Doorstep. Very interesting. For example, do you know the #1 factor that killed the milkman? I tested my history-teaching husband, and he guessed ‘industrial dairy farming.’ Hah! Gotcha! The answer: Refrigerators. These little details about how and why life changed – became “modern” – fascinate me. In fact, I think the reason I like the postwar era so much, rather than say, the Victorian era, is that in many ways we are still playing out the changes launched after WWII. Most all the elements important to life today gelled then.

The exhibit reports:

After World War II, change came to the milkman. The milkman was a familiar character in the neighborhoods of small towns and cities alike, and dairy products now held an unquestioned place in the American diet. Yet, refrigerators, supermarkets, suburban sprawl, and automobiles threatened home delivery. Consumers chose to live in different places and get milk in different ways. In fact, by the end of the 1950s, home delivery fell into a decline and never recovered. By the early 1950s, reliable power refrigeration replaced ice boxes and revised the homemaker’s job of buying and cooking for the household. Perishable foods like milk could now be bought in greater quantity and kept longer without spoiling, more meals could be made from leftovers, and frozen foods could replace fresh. The milkman did not have to arrive every day in order for the family to have unsoured milk.

Tour the wonderful Historic New England virtual exhibit here.

  1. Susan Burke says:

    I wish milk was still available for delivery. We go through so much of it, it would be nice not to have to keep running to the store.

  2. Merry Sears says:

    When I was a child we had dairy and eggs delivered until the mid 70’s, we had an insilated metal box on the front porch. My mom would leave a note in the box if her standing ordered changed because of company or a bake sale at church, the box would be filled before we got up most of the time even when we had bad snow. I thought it was so cool the milk came in glass bottles that we returned when empty. We also had chips and pretzels delivered in tin cans. Miss those days.

  3. erica g says:

    When I was 10 – 12ish in the early 1990’s my mom used to get milk delivery to our house.. we lived then in a subburb of seattle. The milk came in half gallon wax cartons in one of those plastic crates. I remember thinking it was odd but cool. No one else I knew had milk delivered.

  4. greg schrimpf says:

    I was a milkman for Carnation Company, Oakland California in 71 and 72.. that was the last of home delivery. All the companies, challenge/williams/producers/crystal/foremost/arden farms/berkeley farms/foster farms had home deliveries. I stayed in the dairy business for 40 years. Now there are only 3 major companies left in northern california.

    1. Lareina says:

      Thank you for your 40 years of service. My husband and I are just in transition to take over a small organic family owned dairy farm (my husbands parents farm). So I’m just starting out in the dairy business. I’m getting excited to start this journey and learn as much as I can. My grandparents use to have a dairy operation in Winnipeg Manitoba as well where their milk was picked up by a milk truck. They stored the milk in a bathtub of water to keep it chilled until pick up. You must have some interesting stories to share.

  5. Caroline says:

    I was raised on a Jersey farm and Jerseys have more protein and butterfat in their milk-Jerseys really are the best! I’m also studying Dairy Science in college right now! Honestly don’t worry about the dairy industries use of artificial hormones (rBST), studies have shown absolutely no difference between milk from cows treated with rBST and rBSt-free cows. As in no difference like we can’t even test for it because there is no difference-the use of this awesome biotechnology just lets us make milk with less of a carbon foot print and less resources! So don’t worry and drink up!

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