From Cows to Cartons

is the most natural, though not always most efficient, way to transport
milk from cow to consumer. Science has not found a good substitute for
the udder, but it has triumphed in making milk packaging more sanitary
and utilitarian.

Until the end of the 19th century, milk was brought to the market in
cans or crocks. Shoppers would have to transfer it into their own pails
or bottles before lugging it home. The hygiene of this distribution
method left something to be desired.


According to A Treasury of American Bottles (Bobbs-Merrill, 1975), by
William C. Ketchum Jr., the first patent for milk bottles was issued to
the Warren Glass Works Company on March 23, 1880. A few years later,
Dr. Henry D. Thatcher unveiled a bottle with lettering and designs
embossed on it as well as a novel bail-style fastener (previously used
for fruit jars). In 1889, he invented a bottle with an internal groove
that supported a waxed-paper cap. (Wax or paraffin was the major
sealing material at the time.) From then on, milk-bottle manufacturers
produced wide-mouth bottles industrially.

Vintage Milk Bottles from Getty Images

Milk containers were made in round, square, squat, and cream-top
versions. (The latter had an elongated cap that captured cream.)
Meanwhile, the embossed decorations introduced by Thatcher were a boon
for milk producers. They branded their bottles with pictures of barns,
cows, and even U.S. presidents. (Washington and Lincoln were among the
presumably lactose-tolerant politicians whose images were used to sell
milk.) In the 1930s, Ketchum notes, the new Applied Color Label made
painting labels directly onto bottles an affordable option for many
dairies, replacing embossing.

Courtesy of Steven Heller

The wax sealers eventually gave way to heavy cardboard tops, which
prevailed through the 1960s. Printers specializing in tops had a wide
variety of stock typographic and illustration patterns, onto which the
dairy or other identifying information was printed in a variety of
colors. But while the hues of the tops proliferated, the bottles
themselves increasingly became clear as shoppers insisted on being able
to see the milk they were buying.

Courtesy of Steven Heller

Wax was put to a new use in 1904, when James Kimsey patented milk
cartons made from waxed paper. Wax containers were soon made in
squares, cylinders, cones, and even replicas of glass bottles.


During the postwar years, the popularity of waxed milk cartons
grew. The American Can Company held a patent for square, flat-topped
containers with an attached cap. The container was made in a factory,
and milk was poured at the dairy. They were purportedly more sanitary
that way, though wax flakes would often fall into the milk, creating an
unpleasant taste and tactile sensation. Today’s milk containers are
better sealed and include pouring spouts. But there is still something
about those glass bottles and cardboard caps that says “fresh” better
than any of the new, overly branded cartons and jugs.

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.