Milk’s History: The Whole Story

Some of you likely remember the days when the milkman delivered milk in glass bottles – straight from the farm. But did you know that milk’s presence in our lives dates back as far as recorded history? Long before the plastic-covered paper carton and proper pasteurization methods made it possible to transport milk further from the farm, milk had a prominent place in our lives.

Ancient History

Animal milk is believed to have been part of our lives since the agricultural revolution, around 10,000 B.C., when people moved from a nomadic lifestyle to settle in communities. With this shift, hunting and gathering gave way to domestication of animals and the beginning of agriculture as the main way of producing food. Cows, sheep, goats and more were all prized for their milk. In fact, in Ancient Egypt, milk and dairy products were so highly valued that they were reserved for royalty, high priests, and the very wealthy (and we all know the Biblical Promised Land as “the land of milk and honey” – further proof of its noble status). There is also evidence that cheese-making was practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Talk about going back a long way!

The Middle Ages and New World

In the Middle Ages, milk was called “the virtuous white liquor” because alcohol (and milk) was often more reliable than water for safe-drinking. By the 14th Century, cow’s milk was already more popular than sheep’s milk, which may be part of the reason why dairy cows were brought over to North America in the early 1600s as part of efforts to colonize the New World. Imagine how difficult it must have been to get dairy cows onto a ship (and to keep them healthy during the long crossing)!

American Revolution and Industrialization

Before the American Revolution, most dairy products were consumed on the farm on which they were produced – largely because proper sterilization and preservation methods that would make transport possible had not yet been invented. By about 1790, though, some population centers (including Boston, New York, and Philadelphia) had grown large enough to support a milk industry, and producers sought a way to sell their milk more widely.

Problems arose when milk industries popped up in urban centers, however; raising cows so close to the city (rather than in farmland pastures) and a lack of proper sterilization methods made for a perfect breeding ground for illnesses and disease. We needed to find a way to bring the milk to the city safely – while leaving the farm at the farm.


It wasn’t until the 1890s that milk could safely be stored and transported across longer distances. Progress came from Louis Pasteur, a French microbiologist who invented the sterilization techniques that bear his name (pasteurization). His first tests in 1862 revolutionized milk safety, and when implemented commercially led to the possibility of wider distribution of milk and dairy products. In fact, the first U.S. milk processing plant to install pasteurization equipment was apparently the Sheffield Farms Dairy in Bloomfield, New Jersey. It is thanks to Pasteur that today we can enjoy milk without needing to live next to a farm!

Modern Milk

The plastic-coated paper milk carton we all recognize was invented in 1932. Because of its light weight, it made it possible to transport milk even further than the glass bottles previously in use since the 1870s (though it didn’t become the standard until the 1950s and ‘60s). That seemingly small change in packaging made a big difference: now, milk can be transported all over the country safely and efficiently, which means that everyone can enjoy the refreshing taste of a cold glass of milk – no matter how far from the farm.

There’s much more to that humble glass of milk than meets the eye! Each sip you take not only gives you many of the essential vitamins and nutrients you need daily – it also connects you to thousands of years of human history and innovation. Talk about getting the whole experience!

Bob Carr

Bob Carr

Bob Carr has a long history with the Wadhams family and Wadhams Enterprises. He currently works as Director of Sales for ARG Trucking Corp, as well as for this milk hauling division, ETW.