Glass milk bottle from J. C. King. Date: 1943 or 1948 (per mark on bottle’s bottom). WHS collections 2005.23.1, gift of Susan Viner.
This article was originally published in the Windsor Historical Society Newsletter Vol. 23. No. 2, May, 2005.
Antique collecting has become a popular American pastime, with an estimated 25 million Americans on the hunt for historic and unique treasures. This year, I explored the fascinating world of milk bottle collecting and learned about a recent gift to the Windsor Historical Society.
When I parked next to a car with the vanity license plate BOTTLES, I knew I was going to meet serious collectors at the Somers Antique Bottle Club’s 35th Annual Show and Sale. Held at the St. Bernard School in Enfield, Connecticut, the show attracted collectors of a variety of bottles, insulators, jars, candy containers, stoneware and related items. One of the several dozen annual bottle shows held across the country, the Enfield show drew bottle enthusiasts from the tri-state area who attended to buy, sell and share their collections with one another.
I came to the show to learn more about a milk bottle recently donated to the Society’s collections. Made for Windsor farmer J. C. King, the quart-size bottle sports an orange image of a cow in a pasture on its front side, while on the reverse side the bottle features a boy and girl above the caption “Milk means Health”. The bottle is in good condition and has a wonderful link to Windsor’s twentieth-century history. Still, I wondered if the bottle was authentic, and if so, I wondered what the bottle’s structure and design could reveal about Mr. King and his dairy. These questions led me to Peter Manfredi, a milk bottle collector and dealer who was eager to teach me the connoisseurship of the milk bottle.
Dairies began using milk bottles at the end of the 19th century as a way of storing and delivering milk to customers. Many dairies used bottles with embossed, painted or paper labels to encourage customers to return their used bottles to be refilled and redistributed. Like most small dairies, the J. C. King farm did not have the resources to make their own bottles, but instead bought personalized bottles from a bottle manufacturer. TMC, the mark of the Thatcher Manufacturing Company of Elmira, New York, is embossed on the bottle’s bottom, as well as a number 43 or 48 that dates the bottle to the 1940s.
The King milk bottle was used during a time of changing agriculture and technology. By the early 20th century, the number of Windsorites who owned their own milk cows was decreasing and more people had to rely on outside services for their dairy products. At the same time advances in appliance technology brought iceboxes and refrigerators into local kitchens, allowing homeowners to keep the milk fresh for extended periods of time. Milk bottlers responded to these changes, and by the mid-1940s milk bottle manufacturers were advertising square-edged bottles that they claimed would save space in the refrigerator. Yet even those models of modern design would pass into obscurity when plastic and cardboard containers became the cheaper and easier forms for milk storage in the 1960s.
Today, mid-20th century milk bottles range in price from $10 to $100 and attract collectors because they are affordable and attractive. Finding bottles from local dairies also makes the hunt fun and personal for enthusiasts. Whether intrigued by the milk bottles’ form, enthralled by their colorful graphics or simply nostalgic for a time of milkmen and home deliveries, local milk bottle collectors have found a tasteful way to preserve part of Connecticut’s 20th century history.
By Erin Stevic, Curator, 2005