In retirement, longtime professor Ian Spellerberg has returned to his childhood. Growing up in the 1950s, Ian visited his aunt and uncle’s farm in the Canterbury Plains of New Zealand every year. There, he developed an affinity for milk cans.
For the past 15 years, he has devoted himself to the study and research of these farm relics, building a collection of more than 280 pieces from 21 countries. He displays pieces from his collection at the front gate and along the driveway. Others reside in his kitchen courtyard, on the veranda and inside the house. He also has a dairy can shed and display room.
Ian’s collection includes a typical 1930s aluminum 10-gallon can with a mushroom-style lid, a cream setting (or deep setting) can, a 1920s Surge Milker, small tin cans, a painted square can, galvanized iron milk cans (which were introduced in the 1850s) and a milk can insulation jacket.
Revisiting childhood visits to New Zealand
Ian and his wife, Myfanwy, moved from England to New Zealand in the late 1990s. Today they live in an old farm cottage near the sea, about 40 miles from the location of his aunt and uncle’s former farm near Christchurch. The farmland around the couple’s house was sold many years ago, leaving just the cottage on less than 2 acres. The home is surrounded by lots of mature trees and old outbuildings, “perfect,” Ian says, “for displaying milk cans.”
When he was a boy, Ian and his family visited his aunt and uncle at least once a year. “My father helped by building a new dairy building that allowed just two cows to be milked at any one time,” he says. “Those were happy, innocent days. I loved watching the milking every morning and afternoon. The warm aroma of the cows, the clatter of hooves on the concrete floor, the noise of milk being squirted into buckets, the hum of the separator – all those sounds are still so clear in my memory.”
After World War II, returning soldiers found jobs working the land in New Zealand. Some acquired their own farms. “As I recall, my uncle had about a dozen cows, a flock of sheep and some arable crops,” Ian says. “It was modest living on the farm in those early days, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s, rising overseas prices gave better export returns for dairy products. Rising prices and better returns gave farmers capital to invest in the farm.”
Information on cans hard to come by
When Ian began delving into the history of milk cans, he discovered there was plenty of information to be had pertaining to milk bottles, but not milk cans.
“In the early stages of the milk industry, farmers would deliver full cans with a horse and cart and then return home with empties,” he says. “That was at a time when there were no standards for the manufacturing of milk cans. Many were made by local tinsmiths or ironmongers. Some were made at home, using modified billycans (a lightweight cooking pot similar to a bucket, commonly used in Australia to cook over a campfire or haul water).
Cans came in varied shapes and volumes. “I have a square milk can from the U.S.,” Ian says. “Later, as milk production increased, cans became more standardized. By then, dairy factory trucks collected full milk cans and returned empty cans to the farmer.”
Technically, when the can was full, it belonged to the dairy. When the can was empty, it belonged to the farmer. “At that time,” Ian says, “I would suggest that trucks were not yet made to take cans that fit exactly onto the truck bed.”
Milk can design eventually driven by truck-bed grid
In time, cans were standardized in shape, volume and composition. Truck beds became part of the equation. “There would be that perfect grid,” Ian says. “The 10-gallon aluminum cans with mushroom-shaped lids of the 1950s were very common for many years.”
In the U.S., Ian says, milk was first transported in buckets or pails. “Between 1859 and 1919, 543 patents were issued in the U.S. for milk cans,” he notes. “The earliest patent that I could find was for 1859. That helps to answer the question as to when they were introduced – at least the patented examples.”
How milk cans were stored impacted the dairy product’s freshness. “When milk cans were full, they had to be kept cool,” Ian says. “This was done by putting full cans in tanks of water or in newly invented automated can coolers. When empty, the cans had to be kept clean. They were usually stored in the dairy shed where it was cool and near where the cows were milked.”
Old cans regularly repurposed
Farmers regularly repurposed milk cans. Empty cans being returned to the farm were ideal vessels for transporting butter, mail or even smuggling whiskey. Milk cans also made good bread and flour bins. For food storage purposes, Ian says, metal lids were substituted for wooden lids, because they’re easier to remove. Cans were also used to store gasoline or grain. And old milk can lids made perfect food and water bowls for dogs and poultry.
“Old clean milk cans made very useful containers for anything you could think of,” he says, “even live fish and occasionally snakes.”
Today, milk cans are commonly seen as home décor, converted into use as stools, welcome signs or containers for flowers and greenery. They’ve also been pressed into service as umbrella stands, planters and letter boxes. “Many milk cans have been given a new lease on life,” he says. “I have an old garden roller made out of three milk cans filled with concrete.” FC
Emeritus professor of nature conservation at Lincoln University in New Zealand, Ian Spellerberg has edited and written 20 books, including Milk Cans: A Celebration of Their History, Use and Design published in 2018 by Astragal Press. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Freelance journalist Sara Jordan-Heintz’s articles have appeared in Antique Trader, Equine Wellness and Discover Vintage America.