Highlights of US milk demand, delivery

A recap of the fluid (drinking) milk history of the U.S., even as dairy product consumption and production rise. Focuses on the demise of delivery trucks like the one that John and Sharon Larson of Moorhead, Minn., in companion story.

John and Sharon Larson’s vintage dairy truck includes some collector dairy memorabilia, including this bottle that carries the label Allentown Dairy, Co. Inc. The company was based in Allentown, Pa., formed by smaller dairies in 1915. Foremost Dairies, Inc., founded in 1931 by J.C. Penny, purchased it in 1957. Foremost later merged with Beatrice Dairies. Photo taken May 24, 2021, Moorhead, Minn. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Here are facts about U.S. fluid milk milestones, from U.S. Department of Agriculture documents including academic reports and studies as well as summaries from U.S. dairy and processing organizations.

  • 1785 — The first milk deliveries came in Vermont, in barrels. Consumers would meet the milk man with “jugs, pails or jars,” to be filled. Milk men would portion the milk house-by-house out of a metal milk barrel.

  • 1878 — The Lester Milk Co. invents the the Lester Milk Jar, allowing milk sold in glass bottles in 1879.

  • 1884 — Henry D. Thatcher of Pottsdam, N.Y., invents a new glass bottle, including a “cap.” Bottles were sealed with waxed foil caps. Milkmen would pick up empty glass bottles along their route, clean them and reuse them.

  • 1890s — Dairies started pasteurizing milk, treating it with temperatures to reduce the threat of of bacterial diseases.

  • 1920s — Companies etched advertisements and designs on the bottles. Without refrigeration, daily deliveries prevent spoilage. Customers would place orders with milkmen.

  • 1930s and 1940s — Electric refrigeration replaces “ice boxes.” Grocery stores change things. Most other regular staples — produce, meat, bread and dry goods — had dedicated storefronts.

  • Post WWII — Populations move to suburbs, increasing costs for milk trucks. Car travel makes consumers more mobile. Matt Novak, in a 2012 article, wrote that as the milkman’s expenses increased he was forced to raise prices on his products, which caused families to just tack on milk … to their supermarket grocery lists.”

  • 1950s — Square wax paper cartons and plastic containers replace bottles.

  • 1963 — USDA says 29.7% of milk consumed is delivered to homes.

  • 1976 — 6.9% of American milk sales are delivered to homes.

  • 2005 — 0.4% of milk is delivered to homes.

  • 2014 — A group called Drink Milk in Glass Bottles starts, to help consumers find places to sign up for local home milk delivery. Companies like Manhattan Milk and other competitors offer contracted delivery service.

More dairy delivery stories:

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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