Who is Today's Milkman (or maid) and What Happened to the Original?

Milkman in Toronto Canada, 1944. Public Domain image. 

Milkman in Toronto Canada, 1944. Public Domain image. 

In the past decade, we’ve seen steadily increasing awareness of the quality and integrity of what we eat. Now, more than ever, consumers want to know where their food comes from — and many prefer to source it directly whenever possible. Farmers markets have never been more popular, artisanal food markets can be found in just about every major city, and we’re seeing a resurgence in specialized shops led by cheesemongers, butchers and bakers.

But what ever happened to the milkman?

For centuries, home milk delivery was common, until the mid-20th century when milk packaging and transportation technologies converged to make home delivery uneconomic and inconvenient. Women, active in dairies as owners and producers, often delivered milk and were known as milkmaids. In the late 18th century, George Cheyne wrote about milk delivery by milkmaids in The English Malady, and William Hogarth’s 1741 painting The Enraged Musician depicts a milkmaid with a large milk bucket atop her head as she navigates a crowded street in London.

"Enraged musician" by William Hogarth, depicting a milkmaid. Public Domain image.

"Enraged musician" by William Hogarth, depicting a milkmaid. Public Domain image.

The earliest records of milk home delivery in the United States date back to 1860 in New England. According to the USDA, more than half of the U.S. milk supply was delivered to homes in glass quart bottles in 1950. But by 2005, the last year for which the USDA recorded numbers, only 0.4 percent of U.S. milk was delivered to homes.

“There is nobody tracking modern-day delivery companies, but I’m sure the number is extremely small,” says Scott Wallin, Director of Consumer Confidence at Dairy Management Inc. “Most U.S. dairy farm families are members of dairy co-operatives that sell the farmers’ milk to processing plants where it is pasteurized, packaged and delivered to stores.”

The initial decline of milk delivery had to do with a number of social, economic and industrial changes that began in the 1960s. The rise of the self-service supermarket made fresh milk (along with all other grocery items) readily available in one place, and a shift in packaging from glass to cardboard (and later plastic) made it easier for consumers to purchase larger quantities at a time. Home refrigeration also made it possible for consumers to store more milk rather than relying on frequent deliveries of small bottles.

“As suburbs grew, people lived farther apart from each other, making it harder for trucks to cover a given route, and prompting people to rely more on their cars to do food shopping,” says Chris Galen, spokesperson from the National Milk Producers Federation. “And the bottom line is it’s just more economical to deliver food to a central point where people can purchase it — i.e., a supermarket — rather than have individual trucks stop to deliver one type of item to a handful of houses in a neighborhood.”

However, milk delivery is far from obsolete; small family dairies with delivery routes can still be found across the country. Crescent Ridge Dairy, located 25 miles south of Boston, began delivering milk in 1932 and hasn’t stopped since. Even with three other milk delivery services operating within a 50-mile radius, they deliver their small-batch whole milk in glass bottles to approximately 3,600 customers.

“Our peak delivery decade was the 1970s,” recalls owner Mark Parrish, grandson of founder Malby Parrish, and he says their decline in delivery began in the 1980s, when more women entered the workforce.

“Now, it seems that the consumer, regardless of how many wage earners there are, really wants local products and therefore they are finding ways to receive unattended deliveries,” he says. (The logistics of present-day milk delivery are detailed in this video made by Boston.com last month.) “We’re seeing a shift back to growth mode.”

Crescent Ridge delivery truck outside Boston, MA. Photo by: Hannah L. Walters.

Crescent Ridge delivery truck outside Boston, MA. Photo by: Hannah L. Walters.

It was in the 1980s, during this initial downswing, that Crescent Ridge began offering delivery of other grocery items in addition to milk. Back then, they provided staples from large national brands, but in recent years, those have been replaced with high-quality local products, including beef and pork raised on the dairy.

“Our customers are very aware of where their food comes from,” says Parrish. “They want to know the farmer, how the animals are treated, what they eat — people are invested in their food. And having a direct link back to that supplier via your milkman is a very unique value proposition.”

Stephanie Scherzer adopted this same business model in 2008, when she started Farmhouse Delivery in Austin. In addition to providing high-quality local products to families who might not have time to visit the farmers market each week, Scherzer developed Farmhouse using her own unique perspective as an urban farmer.

“If you were a farmer, your options were going to the farmers market or starting a CSA, both of which are very time intensive,” she recalls. “And farming is already time intensive.”

In addition to owning and operating Rain Lily Farm, Scherzer found selling at the farmers market to be a full-time job of its own. “A friend of mine — a chef and a mom — had this idea that we could bring the small farmer to people’s doors,” she says. “This would allow farmers to do what they do best — grow food — and help families put the best quality food on their table.”

In addition to farm-fresh milk, Farmhouse Delivery offers delivery of locally produced fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat from more than three dozen local farms and ranches, as well as baked goods, prepared foods and pantry staples produced by just as many local purveyors (bakeries, tortillerias and other specialty food companies). As the area’s population continues to increase, so does business, and the company has now expanded to serve Houston as well.

“It seems like everything is headed towards delivery and convenience,” says Scherzer. “Maybe it’s that grocery stores have too many choices, or maybe it’s traffic in Austin, but mostly I think the growth in e-commerce has increased everyone’s comfort level with things being delivered.”

This notion of bringing the farm to the people is picking up speed, with similar local delivery companies appearing coast to coast in recent years. (FarmBoxSF in San Francisco, Quinciple in New York, Out of the Box Collective in Los Angeles and Organics To You in Portland, Oregon, are just a few examples.)

Mega-grocers like Instacart and AmazonFresh are also gaining momentum, but as Parrish points out, “I would imagine they are growing as people want the convenience, but their customers may not necessarily be ours.”

Scherzer similarly contends that there’s a difference in quality and authenticity between these corporate outfits and locally owned delivery services “Our customers know they’re supporting their food community, they’re getting the highest quality and it’s convenient,” she explains.

Plus, Farmhouse Delivery — and other like-minded companies— provide more than just product delivery. They inspire customers with weekly recipes, storage tips and stories about the people behind their food. The community connection they cultivate is not unlike the one fostered by the weekly return of the local milkman. And though the human element might appear to have been removed from the equation, their services actually make room for increased interaction with the ones who matter the most.

“People are trying to return to a simpler time,” explains Scherzer. “Instead of [visiting] the grocery store, you can take that time to cook dinner and share it with your family.”