Bring Back the Milkman!

For many children in the 1960s and '70s, the familiar clinking sound of glass milk bottles being left on the doorstep reminded them it would soon be time to get up for school.

Milkmen would provide doorstep deliveries of fresh milk to homes across the UK every day, in a tradition that began way back in the 18th century, in rural America.

However, the growth of supermarkets marked a decline in the milkman's home deliveries in the late 20th century, as consumers chose to bring home their own plastic cartons of longer-lasting milk instead. Now, there are signs that the milkman is starting to make a comeback.


© everettovrk / Adobe Stock Image

First milk rounds

Historians say the first home milk deliveries took place in 1785 in rural Vermont, in the United States. Vermont is renowned for its dairy industry, which remains the primary source of agricultural income today.

The local government has taken steps to preserve Vermont's dairy industry by passing laws to control development in the state.

Back in the 18th century (a time before glass milk bottles existed), every family in Vermont would have their own cow and the richer families would have two cows to provide their milk, but as industrialisation crept in, people began to move from rural to urban areas, where there wasn't any room for the family cow. Houses were smaller and closer together and people's lives were getting busier.

Consumers began to buy their milk from the local dairy farmers instead. To earn business, the farmers began to organise home deliveries in 1785, to make it easier for the customers.

Over time, the dairy farms were run more commercially. The milkman would go door-to-door with a large, metal barrel full of milk. Householders would be able to take out their own containers, including pails, jugs and jars, and the milkman would fill them with milk fresh from the dairy.

In those days, the milk wagon was a horse-drawn cart, as it was long before the days of motorised vehicles. Some milkmen, if they didn't have a horse, would pull their milk cart by hand.

What did the milkman sell?

The first glass milk bottle (called the Lester milk jar) was patented in 1878. This changed the face of milk delivery, as customers no longer needed to take out their own containers. Milk was sold for the first time in the new glass bottles in 1879.

A new glass milk bottle design was launched by Henry D Thatcher in 1884 - the first one to have a cap. By the 1920s, milk bottles were produced with designs and advertisements etched on to the glass, using a special sandblasting technique.

As well as bringing a fresh bottle of milk, the milkman began to sell other items over time, such as cream, eggs, cheese, butter, soft drinks, yogurt and potatoes.

The milkman would deliver bottles of pop or soda in the mid-20th century. Customers could order the flavours that they fancied and have them delivered. Some milkmen had a deposit scheme on the glass soda bottles to encourage customers to leave the empties on the doorstep for collection, in the same way that they would leave empty milk bottles.

The old fashioned horse-drawn carts were replaced by electric and motorised milk floats. Customers knew exactly who was delivering their milk and which farm it was coming from.

Why did milk delivery decline?

In the early part of the 20th century, few homes had their own refrigerator. With milk being a perishable item, it had to be delivered daily to ensure it was fresh.

However, by the 1940s, the majority of homes had a refrigerator. This was the first step in the decline of the milkman. There was no longer a need for fresh milk to be delivered each day, as you could buy in bulk and keep it cold for a few days.

By the mid to late 20th century, grocery stores, and then later supermarkets, were selling milk, as well as bread, meat and dry goods - meaning consumers could buy everything at the same place.

There wasn't any need for home delivery, as people could pick their milk up cheaper while doing the rest of their weekly shop. This was particularly the case when more people started getting their own car as well.

The old glass milk bottles were gradually replaced by wax paper cartons and plastic containers. In the UK in the 1980s, 94% of milk was contained in glass bottles, but by 2012, this was down to only 4%.

By the 1990s, the deregulation of the British milk industry and the sale of cheap milk in plastic containers at supermarkets had changed the face of the industry. It was all about making milk cheaper, but it came at a cost, as consumers no longer knew where their milk came from.

Is the milkman making a comeback?

Early indications suggest that the milkman is beginning to make a comeback - not least because of environmental concerns and attempts to eradicate single-use plastics. So should we be looking to use glass milk bottles again?

According to the industry body, Dairy UK, around 5.5 billion litres of milk is sold every year in the UK, but only 3% is delivered to our doorstep. However, Milk and More, the UK's latest doorstep delivery service for milk and other groceries, says the number of inquiries about milk delivery is steadily growing.

They say there has been "significant recent interest" from customers who want their milk delivered in glass bottles. The company has 1,200 milkmen and women, who deliver more than 100 million pints of milk in glass bottles to around half a million homes across the UK every year.

Glass bottles can be sterilised and reused around 25 times. Then, the bottles are recycled. On the flip side, however, some people claim glass bottles can be equally damaging for the environment, since they need more fuel for transportation.

What do you think? Would you like to see the return of the good old-fashioned milkman? I know I would.

Solent Plastics stocks a range of plastic products that can be used again and again. Give us a call on 01794 514478 for information on our range of plastic storage boxes, containers and other plastic products.