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Food shopping, mid 20th century


Milk, milk bottles and bottle tops in mid-20th Century UK

Milk was delivered to householders' doorsteps in the middle of the 20th Century, and bottle tops distinguished the different types. Most milk was sold in glass bottles and there were collections of their foil tops for charity. 'Top of the milk' was the old name for the cream at the top of unhomogenised milk.

By the 1940s and 50s when I was growing up, people no longer had to use their own jugs when buying milk. Several types of milk were available, each in its own style of milk bottle which was always glass. I never saw any cartons, and of course plastic was years away.

Milk was always delivered to the doorsteps of houses, although extras in emergencies could be bought from the local dairly. When a milk bottle was empty it was dutifully washed out and left on the doorstep for the milkman to collect on the next delivery. I understand that these empty bottles were then sterilised back at the dairy, before re-use.

Sterilised milk

At that time, the only way to kill bacteria in milk was to heat treat it. The result was known as sterilised milk. The sterilisation certainly affected the taste which you can get an idea of by boiling some of today's milk and letting it get cold before tasting it. Sterilised milk did have the advantage of lasting longer than the fresh milk which was important as there were no fridges in ordinary homes.

My mother insisted on having sterilised milk. She wouldn't be budged. So our milk deliveries came from the Co-op partly because it sold sterilised milk but also because the Co-op paid dividend on purchases. Methods of treatment which retained the true taste of the milk were years away.

Why steralise milk in the past

The reason for sterilization of milk was to protect from tuberculosis infected herds. You could safely buy unsterilized milk from TT (Tuberculin tested) cows.

Douglas Adam

The taste of sterilised milk

I was born in England in 1957 and clearly remember my mom buying sterilized milk in its tall bottle and metal top. I hated it. I'm guessing that she only bought it if we ran out of milk from the milkman as there was a co-op nearby.

Julie Paphitis

Guest contribution

Modal Milk - a form of sterilised milk

Sterilised milk was known as Model Milk in Yorkshire but I don't know it that was a Yorkshire thing or a brand name.

Julie Paphitis

Bottles for sterilised milk

Bottle for sterilised milk with its crimped metal top, as sold in Britain in the 1940s before pasteurisation.

Computer mock-up of a bottle of sterilised milk

Sterilised milk bottles were taller than other milk bottles, had a narrow neck and a crimped metal top which needed a a metal bottle opener to prise it off. As far as I know, these tops just got thrown away - unless you know any different. If so, please let me know.

Fresh milk and 'top of the milk'

Occasionally I was given fresh milk from the United Dairies at friends' houses. I loved it, especially the cream which rose to the top, and could be seen as a deeper colour through the transparent glass bottles. It was known to everyone as the 'top of milk' or 'top of the milk' and featured widely in recipes.

Sadly 'top of the milk' is a thing of the past for most people following homogenisation. However, unhomogenised milk with cream on top can still be bought in large UK supermarkets under the name of 'Jersey Milk' or 'Channel Island Milk' - but make sure that it states 'unhomogenised' on the label.

The variety of milk bottles and bottle tops

I only ever saw pint and half pint bottles outside school; school milk came in 1/3 pint bottles. All bottles were clear glass.

There were two main qualities of fresh milk depending on the cream content. The standard quality was basic but nevertheless tasted as if it had more cream than today's skimmed milk. It could generally be recognised by the silver-coloured foil top on its milk bottle - although some dairies used other colours. Gold tops, though, were reserved for the creamier and more expensive milk. It was delicious.

Although dairies in most areas of the UK closed their milk bottles with foil tops, some areas used waxed cardboard discs instead.

Guest contribution

Cream on silver top milk

My mother bought silver top milk rather than gold top, but it also had cream on the couple of inches. I used to love pouring the top of the milk on my cornflakes but if my mom got to it first she would always shake the bottle to mix it!

Julie Paphitis

Incidentally I don't remember seeing any cream sold as cream in the 1940s. If it was available, it was for the comparatively wealthy. It started coming into the shops sometime in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As, in the 1960s, recipes were still quoting 'top of the milk', I was still using my cream-making machine which made cream from milk and butter. Yoghurt came in at about the same time as cream.

milk bottles, 1940s, 1960s and 1970s

Milk bottles for fresh milk from a range of local dairies showing the various designs for marking the name of the dairy

Guest contribution

Bird damage on milk bottle tops

In winter the birds would peck a hole in the foil of milk bottles to get to the cream. What would Health and safety think now!

Julie Paphitis

Uses of milk bottle tops

Foil milk bottle tops were good for keeping children amused because they could be pressed onto objects or coins to make them look silver.

Guest contribution

Foil milk bottle tops could also be removed with a careful unscrewing motion. This way, the milk-bottle top retained its shape, so it could be used as a miniature frisbee by flicking it between the index and middle fingers. Because of their small size and light weight, milk-bottle tops could be flicked in the classroom while the teachers's back was turned. Incidentally, I don't recall seeing regular-sized frisbees in the UK until long after that time.

Simon LeVay

Collections for charity of foil milk bottle tops

Schools and clubs frequently had campaigns to collect the foil tops for salvage in aid of charity. Guide dogs for the Blind was common in our area. There was no central drive to do this, and most housewives thought nothing of putting the foil tops into the dustbin.

How to open the foil tops of milk bottles

The easiest way to remove a milk bottle's foil top was to press it with a finger or thumb. Being foil, it was thin enough to dent, but as it didn't stretch, it came away round the edges.

Laurie Prior describes a simple tool called a denter for doing the same thing in the late 1950s (once the use of plastic had become more widespread). He reports that the denter did the job rather more cleanly, but I never saw one. Its use is described on the page about free school milk.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

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