The Milkman Cometh

Today’s post is prompted by a great photograph of Salem milkmen about to go on their delivery routes given to me by my friend Nelson Dionne.  It was taken by the turn-of-the-(last)century commercial photographer Leland Tilford, who was really good at these “daily life” scenes.  Nelson acquired about 300 of the Tilford photographs and published many of them in an Arcadia book he co-authored with Jerome Curley called SalemThen & Now (2009).  I just love this particular photograph:  the line of earnest milkmen and their horses about to go to work, the lone man leaning out of the second-story window, the banner drink buttermilk, live forever.  This is really another world, and only a mere century away!

On Sunday, I recovered from having hundreds of people file through my house for the May Day tour (they were all lovely, but it is still an exhausting experience) by lying on the couch and watching old movies from the 1950s and 1960s, all of which seemed to feature milkmen as minor, but still contributing, characters.  There was a time when the milkman was a regular presence in homes, but certainly no longer.  I’m old enough, and spent my childhood in a rural enough place, to remember deliveries of milk in glass bottles in general, and the cream on top in particular, but there is a dairy in Salem (Puleo‘s, established in 1928) that still delivers today.  New England, of course, is a dairy dreamland, and a couple of years ago Historic New England had a great traveling exhibition, which is still archived on their site, entitled From Dairy to Doorstep:  Milk Delivery in New England, 1860-1960.  It is so interesting to see the development and transformation of this important industry, from commercialization through mechanization and pasteurization, in a regional context.  But after viewing the exhibition in reality a couple of years ago, and digitally today, I was still thirsty for more.

Scenes from the expanding dairy industry in the northeastern US, 1910s-1950s:

8-year-old Jack in western Massachusetts gets ready for his milk deliveries on a “stone boat”, from a Lewis  Wickes Hine report on rural child labor in the Library of Congress, 1915; a milkman making deliveries in the New York suburbs, 1925, and H.P. Hood milkmen and trucks in the 1950s, University of Massachusetts Special Collections.

From at least the 1920s, there were escalating emphases on sterilization and specialization; here in New England, the Hood Company definitely showcased the former, while condensed and super-creamy “swiss milk” represented new milk markets.

Milk postcard (H.P. Hood & Sons, “the most sanitary milk depot in New England”) and posters from the 1920s, New York Public Library Digital Collection.

The production and distribution of milk, like most evolving industries, has an impact of gender:  the coming of the milkman means the disappearance of the milk maid, a very prominent figure in British print culture in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but much less so in America.  Looking through the print and caricature collections in the British Museum, I see that the milkmaid takes on a number of representative roles:  she is the picture (and bearer) of health in the countryside and the yoke-bearing female representative of the “lower orders” in the city, while in the satirical prints of Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray she epitomizes a “loose” woman, spilling her milk as she winds up in a haystack with any man who wanders into her midst.  The best way to criticize a man at the end of the eighteenth century was to turn him into a woman, and poor King George III appears as a milkmaid several times, usually during bouts of his recurrent illness.

Milk maids of England:  in the city (1804), the country (1807) and at Windsor (George III, 1792), British Museum.


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