Chances are if you grew up in small-town America in the 1950s or earlier, you awoke most mornings not to the ringing of an alarm clock, but to the sound of glass bottles jostling against each other as the neighborhood “milkman” made his way from door to door. If you were a child of the 1930s and 40s, you might be forgiven for having believed that such predictable reminders of normalcy would always be a familiar part of village life - that certainly so important an institution would follow us through the years. Who would have thought that something as perfectly-engineered, so solid, sanitary and trusted as a re-useable glass bottle would be replaced by wax-coated paper or light-weight and single-use plastic containers whose destiny was to swell our landfills for an unknown “half-life”, while the venerable and low-geared stop-and-go delivery vans whose presence was so much a part of street life would largely disappear forever, replaced by corner convenience stores and mall-sized supermarkets. (There are a few hold-outs here and there.)
Until 1878, delivered milk was transferred into metal jugs, often with the family name riveted to the side of the galvanized container. (We have two such six-quart and much loved metal milk jugs on our pantry shelves.) At about that time, the New York Dairy Company began delivering milk in newly-patented and reusable glass “Lester Milk Jars”. A series of additional patents followed, incorporating different bottle caps and lids, and soon variations in shapes and designs as well. Eventually, labels and advertising were imprinted on the glass, further bringing individuality and creativity to a new commercial art form. From coast to coast and community to community, hundreds and thousands of dairy outlets – big and small – cast several generations of variations in the glass sculpture which encircled a universally-needed product being delivered by real people directly to American homes.
On the front porch of our suburban New Jersey home sat a Borden Company “milk box”, into which we would place yesterday’s clean and shiny empties. Like clockwork, somewhere around 5:30 am, we would hear first the idling truck engine, then the footsteps of that “invisible” messenger on the front walkway and steps followed by the clanking of bottles, the departing footfalls and the grinding of gears as the short-wheel-base van with its bull-dog face and its pull-down driver’s seat stole away into the pre-dawn dusk. Then, just two or three doors down the street, we might hear a replay of all those sounds if sleep had not immediately reclaimed us.
Of course all of that changed when our family moved to our own dairy farm in the Green Mountains of Vermont in 1948, but the sounds of that first “milkman” still haunts my earlier set of memories.
Today, old milk bottles have become one of the most collectible of all “Americana” artifacts and virtually every antique shop or mall will have a few on display. Depending on place of origin, unique imprint, age and condition, they can be very valuable. Like all heirlooms made of glass, their number will continue to dwindle as will also the generation of people whose memory cells sing at the vision and touch of historic old glass.