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Culinary Curiosities: Giving Thanks for the Milk Carton



It may have been a while since you drank milk from one of the single-serve cartons found in the school cafeteria. But chances are you’ve picked up a quart or two recently. Nearly every fridge has the familiar rectangular carton with the push-pull spout. Whether whole or skim, soy or almond, cow or goat, it doesn’t matter. The familiar packaging is ubiquitous. It got me wondering: Who invented the milk carton?

It is a matter of some dispute. In the early part of the 20th century many inventors were working on a variety of single-use paper cartons to replace the traditional glass bottle. The most accepted story goes that one morning, John Van Wormer of Toledo, Ohio, stepped outside to fetch his morning milk and dropped it. The ensuing mess convinced him there had to be a better way to deliver and store milk. In 1915 he got a patent for a gable-top paper carton (the kind that looks like a little house), but it would be quite some time—decades, in fact—for this style of packaging to catch on.

Even before Van Wormer got his patent in 1915, other inventors had experimented with various forms of packaging, including a paraffin-coated pail (1896), wax-paper cylinders (1904 and 1906), a paper bottle shaped like a traditional milk bottle (1912), and a cone shaped container (1914). Van Wormer first developed a box shape created with a plug already inside that would rise to the opening when filled with milk (1911) and a bottle (1913) before he hit upon the square carton with the gable top. The paper for the cartons could be shipped flat to the dairy and filled on site. Easy to transport and lighter than glass bottles, the sealed, safe, single-use carton was just what American homes needed.

But it took a long time to catch on. American families, it seemed, were very fond of their glass bottles, despite some of the inconveniences of milk delivery. Broken or chipped bottles were issues, of course, as well as how well or if, they were properly sanitized. Some milkmen would top off or split bottles of milk in their trucks, even refilling dirty bottles rather than taking them back for cleaning. Dairies struggled to absorb the cost of bottles that were never returned.  Many were simply thrown out in the trash. Other families kept and repurposed the bottles. In some cities, it was illegal to deliver milk in anything but glass (the better to visually inspect milk and assure proper volume). In general, consumers were suspicious of an opaque container:  How could they see the nice, thick line of cream and know what they were getting?

In the 1930s the gable top carton was in wide circulation and really took off in the 1940s and ‘50s. Finally, the ease of that push-pull spout and the assured cleanliness of the sealed carton gained favor. Laws and customs changed. The milk carton is now the standard for milk packaging. And yet, in some areas the milkman and those glass bottles are making a comeback. People want to know more about where their milk is coming from. Is it a single-source, or, like much commercial milk, blended from many dairies at the factory? A new model (or a very old one, depending on your perspective) of direct-to-consumer milk delivery is gaining momentum. In “The Milkman Cometh: An Old Fashioned Tradition Revived,” published in 2014 in Modern Farmer, describes how the Local Farmers’ Delivery in Portland, Oregon, experienced a tripling of demand in its first three months. In Middletown, Maryland, the South Mountain Creamery’s milk delivery was so popular they had to start a waiting list.

But going back to milk delivery is not an option for everyone. Those darn bottles don’t clean and return themselves. Breakage is still a risk. And what if you run out of milk? Nowadays you don’t have to wait for the milkman; the corner store will always have a carton waiting in the cooler. Thanks, Mr. Van Wormer.

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