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


By the 1940s and 50s, milk was only sold in clear glass bottles, normally with foil tops - a major change from in earlier years. The shape of the bottle and the colour of the foil indicated the type and quality of the milk. This page is about the types of milk available at the time, their relative merits, how they could be distinguished by their bottles and the various uses of the foil tops.


By the webmaster based on her firsthand recollections and additional research with contributions from others who lived at the time

Milk bottles

When I was young, milk always came in glass bottles. People no longer had to use their own jugs when buying milk or receiving it from a delivery, and I never saw any milk cartons. Plastic of course was years away. When a milk bottle was empty, it was dutifully washed out and returned to the dairy or 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.

Apart from at school, I only ever saw pint and half pint bottles outside school. School milk came in third of a pint bottles.

Sterilised milk

One popular type of milk was known as 'sterilised milk', also spelt 'sterilized'. At that time, the only way to kill bacteria in milk was to heat treat it. This form of sterilisation certainly had the advantage of lasting longer than fresh milk which was important as there were no fridges in ordinary homes. However, it seriously affected the taste. If you would like to know how, try boiling some of today's milk and letting it get cold before tasting it. Methods of purification treatment which retained the true taste of the milk were years away.

My mother insisted on having sterilised milk. She wouldn't be budged. Not all dairies sold it. So our milk deliveries came from the Co-op which did sell it and which of course paid dividend on purchases.

Why sterilise milk in the past

The reason for sterilisation of milk was to protect from tuberculosis infected herds. If you really objected to the taste, you could safely buy unsterilised milk from TT (Tuberculin tested) cows, but it did cost more.

Douglas Adam

The taste of sterilised milk

I was born in England in 1957 and clearly remember my mom buying sterilised milk in its tall bottle and crimped 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

Modal milk - another name for 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.

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 its variety of milk bottle tops

There were two main qualities of fresh milk depending on the cream content. They were easily recognised at the point of sale by the colour of their tops.

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

Silver top milk and milk bottles

Standard quality milk was basic and the type widely seen on people's doorsteps, delivered by the milkman. Nevertheless tasted as if it had more cream than today's skimmed milk. It could be recognised by its silver-coloured foil bottle top - although some dairies used other colours.

Gold top milk and milk bottles

Gold tops were reserved for the creamier and more expensive milk which was delicious, but the colour did vary from supplier to supplier.

milk bottles, 1940s, 1960s and 1970s

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

'Top of the milk'

When I was given fresh milk at friends' houses. I particularly loved 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'. There was more of it in gold top bottles but it smaller amounts were still in silver top bottles. It featured widely in recipes.

Sadly 'top of the milk' is generally a thing of the past 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'. It comes from tuberculin tested cows. Do make sure that it states 'unhomogenised' on the label.

Cream on silver top milk

My mother bought silver top milk rather than gold top, but it also had some cream on the top. 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 so that everyone got some of 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. At the time, it felt like too much of a luxury the 1960s. So where recipes called for 'top of the milk', I still used my cream-making machine which made cream from milk and butter. Yoghurt came in at about the same time as cream.

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.

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. Recycling was unknown.

Foil milk tops as amusements for children

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

Miniature frisbees

Foil milk bottle tops could also be removed without damage with a careful unscrewing motion. This way, the 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 teacher's back was turned. Incidentally, I don't recall seeing regular-sized frisbees in the UK until long after that time.

Simon LeVay

Bird damage on milk bottle tops

In winter the birds would peck holes in the foil of milk bottles on the door steps to get to the cream. We just ignored it as we could do nothing else. What would Health and Safety think now!

Julie Paphitis

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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