From Dairy to Doorstep
Enamel on metal sign with the H.P. Hood symbol, "Jersey Belle," c.1900. The Jersey breed was known for the high butterfat content of its milk.
Post-World War II homemakers added milk to a widening array of packaged foods like these to feed their families. Note the decorative glasses and bowl in the dish drainer, used to promote cottage cheese, a newly popular product.
The story of the milkman traces a century of change in New England home life.
Once an essential connection between farm and home, the milkman has become a part of our regional folklore and is the centerpiece of SPNEA’s latest exhibition, From Dairy To Doorstep: Milk Delivery in New England, 1860–1960. In New England, retail route milk delivery evolved during the nineteenth century from the farmer who had more milk than he could use. Immediately after milking, he could deliver extra, unrefrigerated milk to customers nearby. As his open wagon rattled down the street, women came out with pitchers and bowls. Uncapping the milk can, he would stir and ladle the milk into each woman’s container. In cities, both milkmen and small stores sold unrefrigerated milk from cans by the dipperful.
The housewife would most likely place the container of milk on the table or in the pantry, cover it with a damp cloth, and use it within a day. Milk had to be delivered daily because few people had refrigeration. Spoiled, adulterated, and contaminated milk caused tragically high summertime infant and child mortality rates in the cities from milk-borne diseases like tuberculosis, diphtheria, dysentery, and intestinal complications. Cookbooks tell us that milk was a drink for children or for the weak and ill but not an essential for older children and adults. Supposedly, butterfat made “rich” cream more healthful and nutritious than unpalatable skim milk, normally fed to pigs.
The introduction of the glass milk bottle in 1878 led to improvements. Bottling and sealing the milk under clean conditions at least helped ensure that dirt and additives would not find their way into the containers. During the heyday of home milk delivery, in the first half of the twentieth century, the trusted milkman carried heavy wire carriers of full milk bottles to customers’ doors or refrigerators, and returned to his horse-drawn wagon or iced-down Divco truck with clanking, clinking empty bottles.
Two major processes that continue today began in earnest at the turn of the last century. Starting then, more and more milk processors applied pasteurization—heating the milk to kill harmful bacteria—practically eliminating unpasteurized commercial milk by 1960. Homogenization—breaking the fat globules into smaller molecules that would stay in suspension—was first widely used by commercial ice cream makers in the early part of the twentieth century to keep the texture of ice cream uniform. Not until the 1940s and 1950s did homogenization of fluid milk become widespread in New England.
Advertisements and promotional products mapped the ways that products and ideas entered popular use. Dairy company sales pitches were aimed at homemakers, the primary buyers of milk products. In the 1950s, for instance, cottage cheese packaged in novelty containers that could be used as drinking glasses and dishes appealed to housewives.
The second World War changed American dairy product consumption. Servicemen learned to drink more milk. Ice cream was declared an essential food and thus remained in wartime production, beneficial, it was said, for both good nutrition and patriotic well-being. The war also had lasting effects on milk delivery. Before the war, the milkman started out in the early morning hours, seven days a week. To save rubber, gasoline, and metal, the U.S. government ordered alternate-day milk delivery, and, because of blackouts, deliveries waited until daylight hours. From then on, many milkmen worked in the daytime and had weekends off.
Finally, supermarkets, suburbs, smooth roads, and multiplying family automobiles signaled big changes for milk delivery. By the end of the 1950s, the homemaker in the family car, driving to a large new supermarket to shop for groceries, had largely supplanted the ubiquitous neighborhood milkman. In one hundred years, an era had come and gone.
—Dr. Judith Moyer
Dr. Moyer, an oral historian on the faculty of the University of New Hampshire, has served as curator for the exhibition.