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When Milk Came in Wagons and Glass Bottles

By Jim Ignasher

How many know that Smithfield has a place once known as Crow Hill? It’s located in the vicinity of Austin Avenue and Mapleville Road, and the Crow Hill Dairy was once located there.

It’s no secret that our nation’s iconic dairy farms are slowly disappearing from the American landscape and have been for decades. A century ago Rhode Island had about 400 dairy farms, but by the1980s that number had dwindled to just over 100. The size and sophistication of each varied, but even small operations could turn a profit. Today there are less than twenty.

Smithfield once had its share of dairy farms that are no longer in existence. Besides the Crow Hill Dairy, there was the Vaughn Dairy on Putnam Pike across from St. Philip School. McQuade’s Dairy on Whipple Road, Niles Dairy on Limerock Road, Steere’s Dairy on Douglas Pike, and Windsor Dairy in Greenville, just to name a few. There were even smaller dairy operations such as the one run by Maria Appleby out of the historic Smith-Appleby House in Stillwater. In the days before convenience stores many went to local farms for their dairy needs, and most farms offered delivery services.

Dairy farming has been around for thousands of years, even pre-dating ancient Egypt. Yet the “industry” as such remained virtually unchanged until the later half of the 19th century when technology began to change the way milk went from the cow to the table.

For example, raw milk straight from the cow carries certain bacterial risks that can prove harmful to people who consume it, especially babies. Yet for centuries these risks were a part of everyday life, not only with milk, but in other food sources as well, for science hadn’t yet discovered or adequately understood the existence of germs and microbes.

All of that began to change in the 1860s when French scientist, biologist, and chemist, Louis Pasteur, (1822-1895), invented his “pasteurization process”, initially to eliminate harmful bacteria in wine, but which was then applied to raw milk. Basically the process involves heating milk to a temperature below its boiling point and then letting it cool. It was found that pasteurization also made milk taste sweeter, yet despite health benefits it took years before the process was universally adopted.

Early “milkmen” carried fresh milk in large metal containers in the back of horse drawn wagons. When making a delivery, the housewife would come out to the wagon with a container of her own, and the milk would be doled out from one of the large containers by the milkman. In some cases the milkman used a long handled dipper, but as time went on, more sophisticated containers had spigots.

These wagons weren’t equipped with refrigeration units, and traveling in the summer months, constantly opening and closing the milk containers, offered ample conditions for bacterial growth as well as contamination from flies and other “debris”. Then someone came up with the idea of bottling milk for home delivery, but there’s some historical debate as to who introduced the concept.

In August of 1873 it was widely published that an Elmira, New York, milkman had introduced “a novelty” in the way of bringing milk to his customers. His wagon was equipped with racks to carry quart bottles, each tightly corked, to ensure purity.

In 1879, F. Ratchford Starr, the owner of Echo Dairy in Litchfield, Connecticut, was reportedly shipping 500 quart bottles of milk a day to New York City. Each bottle was labeled with the date it was sealed, and the name of the cow that it came from.

However, the man generally credited as being the father of the modern milk bottle is Dr. Hervey Thatcher of Potsdam, New York. Legend has it that on one hot summer day in 1884 he witnessed a child standing next to a milk wagon drop her soiled rag doll in an open container of milk. After removing it, the vendor closed the lid and continued on his rounds, apparently unperturbed about any contamination. Thatcher subsequently developed his own milk bottle for sanitary reasons.

Yet the idea of bottled milk was slow to be accepted. There was the initial cost of having the bottles manufactured, as well as cleaning them for re-use. And glass could break, so more care had to be taken while negotiating unpaved bumpy roads. Furthermore, bottles took up more wagon space than the large containers, but as time went on, bottled milk became the norm.

By 1900 most dairies were utilizing their own milk bottles with the dairy name embossed in the glass. Milk bottles would later come to have etched labels, and later painted labels. These bottles are actively sought by collectors today and some from the former Smithfield dairies are known to be in private collections.

Milk bottles carried the name of the dairy to ensure they would be returned. Once back at the dairy they would be sanitized and reused. Thus one might credit the dairy industry as being one of the first to recycle.

Since most deliveries took place in the pre-dawn hours, bottles left for home delivery were often placed in a “milk box”, which was a galvanized-metal insulated box left on the porch by the homeowner receiving the delivery.

The advent of milk bottles led to some interesting inventions. For example, in 1911 a Massachusetts man invented the “milk bottle filler” which allowed the farmer to fill several milk bottles at once.

In 1913 someone came up with “sanitary milk covers” to go over the mouth of the bottle.

In 1915, a “milk siphon” was introduced to remove the cream that would routinely separate from the milk and form at the top of a milk bottle.

And then there was the “Milk Bottle Drain” of 1916, which was a wire contraption that allowed a washed milk bottle to dry upside down.

The financial success of these inventions is unknown.

Milk bottles eventually morphed into plastic coated paper cartons, and the plain plastic bottles commonly seen in stores today.

Home milk delivery can still be had in some locations, but today it’s more the exception than the norm.

Today we’re fortunate that milk prices are generally low, but we should consider what we might be paying someday if our dairy farms continue to disappear.