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The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as a young child

Types of milk in 1940s & 1950s
Britain and their milk bottles

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Sterilised milk

I don't know how the milk was sterilised. The sterilisation certainly affected the taste, although it did have the advantage of lasting longer than the fresh milk. There were of course no fridges. So our milk deliveries came from the Co-op because it sold sterilised milk and because the Co-op paid dividend on purchases. My mother insisted on having it. She wouldn't be budged. Methods of treatment which retained the true taste of the milk were years away.

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Fresh milk

Occasionally I was given fresh milk from the United Dairies at friends' houses, and I suspect that the free school milk came from there too. 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', and sadly it is a thing of the past.

I don't remember seeing any cream in the 1940s. If it was available, it was for the comparatively wealthy. It started coming in in the 1950s and even in the early 1960s, as a married woman, I was still using my Cream-making machine which made cream from milk and butter. Yoghurt came in in the 1950s too.

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Milk bottles

Milk bottles from a range of local dairies in the 1940s and 1950s showing the various ways in which the name of the dairy was marked on the bottles.

Milk bottles from a range of local dairies showing the different ways in which the name of the dairy was marked on the bottles. Either the milk inside this display was rancid or the inside of the glass was painted. With a real bottle of milk, cream was readily visible floating at the top of the milk. Photographed in West Somerset Rural Life Museum.

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

Computerised mock-up of a bottle of sterilised milk.

Where I lived in Edgware, the names of the two dairies were embossed on their bottles, which were always glass, although in other areas of the country names were 'painted' on the bottles in some way. Many were quite colourful.

If you can add anything to this page, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer

Fresh milk was sold in bottles with foil tops. I only ever saw pint and half pint bottles outside school; school milk came in 1/3 pint bottles. As far as I can tell, the dairies in most areas of the UK closed their school milk bottles with foil tops, but dairies in some areas used waxed cardboard discs instead. The foil tops were good as toys because they could be pressed onto objects to make them look silver or round copper coins as play money. Schools frequently had campaigns to collect the foil tops for salvage in aid of charity - Guide dogs for the blind in our area.

Opening the foil tops of bottles of fresh milk

Denter tools for opening foil topped milk bottles

1950s plastic 'denter' gadgets for opening foil tops of milk bottles: Co-op type and United Dairies type, top sides and undersides

How to use a plastic denter for opening a foil topped milk bottle   Foil bottle top, dented with a plastic opening gadget known as a denter

At school in the 1950s in classes such as ours one pupil was given task of 'milk monitor' and halfway through the lesson he or she would use a denter tool like one in the photo and squidge all the tops in two crates of 1/3 pint milk bottles. This provided a total of 50 bottles of milk.

My last year saw me in a class of 52, but as some of the class were excused milk there was enough to go round.

A straw would be popped into each bottle by another 'helper' (rather unhygienic back in those days) but at least the denter avoided having the risk of over-zealous pupils stuffing their thumbs into the milk causing a milk fountain all over clothing and the crate. The denter worked well and very quickly.

Laurie Prior

The easiest way to remove the 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 for doing the same thing in the 1950s (once plastics had become widely used). This denter does the job rather more cleanly, but my schools never had one, and in the home it was easier just to press.

Opening bottles of sterilised milk

Sterilised milk bottles had a hard crimped metal tops which needed to be prised off with a metal opener.

1/3 pint school milk bottles with waxed cardboard disc tops

The bottles which closed with wax discs were different from the foil-topped ones. Whereas the bottles for foil tops needed to have a rim on the outside so that the foil could grip under it, bottles for wax discs had to have a rim on the inside to support the disc. These bottles for disc tops also seem to have had a wider top than those I remember for foil tops.

The discs had a hole half punched into them so that a straw could easily be poked through.

1/3 pint school milk bottle

Left and top right: two views of a 1/3 pint school milk bottle of the sort that had waxed cardboard tops. Bottom right a mock-up of the top in place photographed at a Watercress Line event.

How to make children's pom-poms from the discs

Our teacher used to save the discs, wash them, then with two held together we used to get salvaged wool on a big sack needle and thread the wool through the hole and round the outer edge and back through the centre till the hole was full with lots of different colours. The teacher would then cut the wool all round the outer edge with the scissors between the two discs, then wind a strong thread between the discs creating a woolly ball. These were then threaded on a long string and hung across the front of a baby's pram hood as a distraction toy.

Doug Beales

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Recycling milk bottles

Housewives washed their empty milk bottles carefully each day and put them out on their door steps for the milkman to collect at the next delivery. I understand that they were then sterilised back at the dairy, before re-use.

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.