Do you remember the good old days — back before supermarkets and shopping centers swept into the suburbs and milk was routinely pasteurized, homogenized and contained in plastic — when the milkman, dressed in his crisp white uniform, used to come in his truck or horse-drawn wagon, glass bottles clanking, and a set fresh daily supply of dairy on your doorstep?
Yeah, me neither. But even those who are too young to have had personal experience with the family milkman may feel nostalgic about the simplicity and the directness of the farm-to-table connection his cap-and-bow-tie-wearing image evokes. That collective sentimentality, as well as an interest in buying local, a commitment to quality and the lure of time-saving convenience, is the driving force behind a new (old) trend: the return of the milkman.
In 1950 and for decades before, most U.S. families had men — or sometimes women — deliver milk directly to their homes in quart bottles, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. By 1963, the percentage of consumers who had milk delivered had dropped to 30 percent, and it continued to precipitously decline — to 7 percent in 1975 and, by 2005, to less than half a percent.
In the 1960s, “new processes and government regulation made commercial milk from far away dairies safe to drink, and science and mass advertising persuaded homemakers of milk’s nutritional value,” according to Historic New England’s informative and poignant online exhibition, “From Dairy to Doorstep,” which traces the milkman’s rise and fall. “By the 1960s, social, economic and industrial changes caused milk delivery to shift to the self-service supermarket, and platoons of home delivery milkmen said goodbye.”
But now, reports indicate, home-delivery milkmen are showing up to say hello and drop off milk (and perhaps butter, eggs, cheese and other fresh staples) at homes across the country:
“In Maine, the milkman returns: Like cream to the top, the rise of an old tradition marks customers’ appreciation of nostalgia, convenience,” the Portland (Maine) Press Herald declared in a headline this week.
“The milkman is back: SE Portland company revives milk delivery, adds bread, coffee and more,” the Oregonian relayed.
Though current government statistics are not yet available, anecdotal evidence of a home-milk-delivery revival, which has been building for some time, seems to be mounting. South Mountain Creamery in Maryland has seen its home-delivery business grow from just 13 local customers in 2001, when it launched the service, to 8,500 regular customers in five states today, NPR reports.
Proponents say the farm-to-doorstep, glass-bottled milk, though generally more expensive than what’s sold in supermarkets, tastes better, and they enjoy the more direct connection to the farmers, if not the cows, who supply the family staple.