NEW YORK — Once upon a time, not too long ago, milkmen placed glass bottles full of milk on the doorsteps of homes and shops and cleared away the empties. In the early 1900s and throughout the first half of the 20th century, thousands of American dairies employed milkmen to deliver their goods to customers’ homes, first by horse and wagon, and later by truck. While a few dairies still offer some form of home delivery, the sight of a cheerful fellow in a crisply pressed uniform arriving at the front door has largely disappeared from our shared cultural memory, and the relics of that era have become coveted antiques.
Dairy-related antiques have made their way into many antique advertising collections. Some collectors have hundreds of dairy-related antiques and objects, including milk cans and bottles, dairy signs, dairy equipment, toy milk trucks and even full-sized dairy wagons and trucks. This collecting genre, perhaps more so than many others, has strong crossover appeal. Generalists often snap up dairy artifacts that exude nostalgia and charm.
Dairy advertising signs are especially popular. Boasting strong colors and graphics, signs for dairies – especially those that have gone out of business – make great wall art. Some collectors focus on a particular dairy, while others look for a specific style of graphics. Still others concentrate on a dairy region and hunt for signs from as many of its dairies as possible.
A die-cut porcelain neon sign for Coors Dairy sold for $34,500 in December 2017 at Dan Morphy Auctions. The dairy operated in Cincinnati for decades before being incorporated into a larger firm and ultimately evolving into a dairy distributor. The sign represents the epitome of porcelain advertising and comprises two single-sided signs mounted on a can. Despite some slight weather oxidation, the Coors Dairy sign retains strong colors on the porcelain and the neon is well-done. Other notable highlights in this category include a Fisher Dairy Milk & Cream porcelain advertising sign that sold for $4,250 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2019, also at Dan Morphy Auctions. The dairy, established in 1861 in West Dedham, Massachusetts, used to bring fresh milk by horse and wagon to customers all over town and made daily deliveries to Boston.
Practical artifacts from America’s dairy industry are also highly desirable, especially those with bold, unfaded hues, such as a Queen Dairy porcelain “5 Cents Chilled Churned Buttermilk” churn dispenser that brought $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2017 at Dan Morphy Auctions.
Like the iconic Hess truck that has been a staple of Christmas gift-giving for decades, toy milk trucks are a perennial favorite among collectors. Several leading American toy makers produced their own versions, including a Sturditoy tandem dairy truck that sold for $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020 at Bertoia Auctions. The large two-piece toy retains a creamy white coat of paint and mostly original condition. Established in Illinois in the early 1900s, Buddy ‘L’ was the king of American-made farming toys. The firm made a range of pressed steel delivery toy trucks, such as a Buddy ‘L’ Jr. dairy delivery truck, measuring 25 inches long. It also sold in the same sale at Bertoia’s for $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium.
Budding collectors of dairy antiques often start with the branded or embossed glass bottles the milk was once delivered in. While some of the best and rarest glass milk bottles have sold for a few thousand dollars each, it is possible to acquire small groupings for about $1,000. A collection of six Eastern Nevada milk bottles realized $1,250 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021 at Holabird Western Americana Collections. Clear quart bottles from Hamilton Dairy, Mt. Lakes Dairy Kimberley Dairy and the Golle Dairy were included, as were clear pint bottles from the Manhattan Dairy and Ruth Dairy. The Mountain Lakes one is recognized as scarce.
Novices who have less display space to work with might begin their collections with dairy tokens – objects that represented a form of credit. Customers who paid for milk in advance would receive tokens from the dairy. They would put out a token or two along with the empty bottles on their doorstep, and the milkman would exchange them for fresh bottles of milk.
Plastic jugs and paper cartons cannot match the nostalgic delight evoked by a shapely glass quart bottle emblazoned with the livery of a beloved, long-vanished local dairy. The gear that dairies used to advertise and contain their products was made for a specific purpose, but today, it calls to mind a time when wholesome goodness was delivered right to your front step, and with a smile.
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