All About Vintage Milk Bottle Collecting

In the late 1800s and early to mid-1900s, milk was not packaged in plastic jugs or paper cartons the way it is today. Instead, milk often came in glass bottles. Images of these bottles in popular culture often make them look unremarkable, rendering them as just simple glass bottles, but in reality, vintage milk bottles had a variety of unique designs. Today, what were once practical containers are sought-after collectibles, with people tracking down different bottle styles to display and appreciate for their aesthetic and historical value.

From the Beginning: The First American Cows

American milk production started with the introduction of cows, which happened in the early colonies in the 1600s. Over the next two centuries, many people started their own dairy farms to help feed the people of a growing nation. Many of the cows used in the burgeoning dairy industry were Jersey cows imported from England, but in 1852, Winthrop Chenery, a Massachusetts farmer, purchased a Holstein cow from a Dutch sailor. Impressed with this breed's milk yield, Chenery went on to import more Holsteins, and other farmers began importing them as well. Today, Holstein cows make up around 90% of America's dairy cows.

Putting Milk in Glass Bottles

For centuries, when people wanted milk, they would bring a container of their own to the nearest dairy farm. Often, these containers were homemade metal milk cans. Later, farms would offer daily home delivery of milk, but it would still be ladled into customers' own containers. But the Industrial Revolution brought big changes in how people stored and transported products of all kinds. The emerging canning industry put food into glass jars, and the invention of the glass milk bottle soon followed.

The first glass milk container was patented by George Henry Lester in 1878. Many others followed, with one of the most popular being the Thatcher bottle, patented by Hervey D. Thatcher in 1883. At its peak, Thatcher's glass bottle company produced half of all milk bottles used in the United States. Most glass milk bottles were made of thick glass, and many had designs embossed on them alongside the name of the dairy.

The Shift to Paper

Milk was commonly sold in glass bottles throughout the early 1900s, but in 1948, a new option disrupted the bottle industry. Wax-coated paper cartons rapidly replaced glass bottles; 40% of the milk sold in the United States in 1952 was packaged in a paper carton, and in 1967, that figure had risen to 70%. Plastic milk jugs, first used in 1964, also began to edge out glass bottles. Meanwhile, home milk delivery dwindled, with only 25% of American households getting milk delivered. Today, almost all of the milk sold in America comes in plastic bottles or paper cartons.

Milk Bottles as Collectibles

Today, glass milk bottles have gone from being practical household goods to collectibles. Collectors often focus on one type of bottle to collect, and they have many options to choose from. Some people collect only embossed bottles, where the design is formed into the glass itself, while others prefer pyro-glazed bottles, which bear colorful labels. If a person's family owns or used to own a dairy farm, they might collect bottles from that particular dairy. You can also focus on a certain institution: Places like schools, hospitals, and prisons frequently had their own dairies and bottled their milk themselves. Collectors can also focus on bottles from a specific town or state or even try to collect at least one bottle from every U.S. state. Some prefer to collect a certain bottle size, like quart, pint, or gallon bottles, while others focus on only round bottles or only square-sided ones.

What to Look For in a Collectible Milk Bottle

The Slogan

The words and images on glass milk bottles can make them more collectible. Bottles bearing slogans from World War II, like "Buy War Bonds," are particularly popular, as are ones with well-known characters on them, from Disney characters to the famous Elsie the Cow, the mascot of the Borden Dairy Company.

The Color

Milk bottles themselves are almost always clear, but the pyro-glazed graphics on them can come in a variety of colors. Some people focus on one color for their collection, while others seek out the rarer bottles that have two-color or even three-color graphics on them.

The Deposit

Glass bottles cost money, so dairies sought to encourage people to return the bottles for reuse by charging a deposit, which might be noted on the bottle itself. Bottle deposits typically ranged from 1 to 10 cents.

Cow Breeds

Collectors who know a lot about cows might focus their collection on bottles with images of one specific breed, like Jersey, Holstein, Guernsey, Brown Swiss, or Ayrshire. They might also focus solely on Elsie the Cow. There's some dispute about which breed Elsie was originally intended to be, but the first live cow used to represent Elsie was a Jersey cow.

The Shape

Most milk bottles were rounded to begin with, but square bottles became more popular because they fit together more neatly for transportation and storage. There's also the cream-top bottle, which was designed with a bowl-shaped neck to collect the cream that would rise to the top of the milk so that it could be spooned out. The cream-top bottle was patented, so dairies experimented with other designs to achieve the same effect. For instance, the baby-face bottle had a neck shaped like a baby's head, while the toothache bottle had a neck with a bulge on one side, much like the look of someone's jaw when it's swollen because of a dental problem.

The Graphics

The graphics on milk bottles usually included the name of the dairy and an image of some kind, but some bottles had more interesting additions. For example, Cloverleaf Dairy in Salt Lake City, Utah, made bottles with recipes on them, while many dairies' bottles carried advertisements for breakfast cereal.

Other Dairy-Related Collectibles

Creamers and More

Milk bottles aren't the only types of bottles that people can collect. Some people collect vintage creamers, which were smaller bottles that often only had room for the name of the dairy on them. Others focus on collecting glass jars that once held condensed milk or sour cream. And while they're less common and harder to find, you can also track down bottles made for goat milk to add to a collection.

Bottle Closures

The caps and lids used to seal glass milk bottles came in many different designs. For instance, the Thatcher bottle had a stopper held in place with wire. Smalley bottles were designed to use metal caps, which can also be collected. And cardboard caps were very common and often had interesting printed designs on them. Dairies would sometimes print the day that the milk was bottled on the cap, and these caps are quite popular with collectors. When you're collecting milk bottles, you might also come across cap picks; these metal tools were used to pry off a cap that would be pressed into a recess in the bottle top.


Dairies also produced a wide variety of other products, which bottle collectors call "go-withs." Some of these products were promotional, like calendars bearing the name of the dairy that were given out to customers, while others were practical, like the metal carriers that delivery workers could use to bring multiple bottles of milk to a person's door. Some homes would have a porch box, which would also have the name of the dairy on it and would be kept on the porch to hold milk deliveries. Dairies might also include a cream spoon with their cream-top bottles; these spoons were intended to make it easier to scoop out the cream that collected on top of the milk.

The Glass Used in Vintage Bottles

Most milk bottles were made from clear glass, with older bottles being thicker and newer bottles being thinner. Some milk bottles were made with colored glass, which was thought to keep the milk inside fresher, much like how beer is bottled in brown or green glass. But consumers preferred to be able to see the milk inside clearly, so colored bottles were soon abandoned. This makes colored milk bottles quite rare. Collectors particularly seek out the red bottles made briefly by Borden.

Look Out for Fakes

As more people have begun collecting vintage milk bottles, forgeries have cropped up, so it's important to know what you're buying before making a purchase. For instance, if you can buy a large quantity of the same bottle at once, you should be suspicious of its authenticity. Also, milk was never bottled in pink or blue glass; if the bottle you're looking at is pink or blue, it's not a vintage bottle.

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