Why the humble milk can is a design icon

Throughout the world there are some commonly used objects that need no explanation or introduction no matter where you are. The humble milk can, for example, is recognisable the world over. There are different designs but the most common design (straight sides and narrow neck) has been used for more than 200 years and is still used today. Other milk can designs go back thousands of years. Why is it that such a common object with such a simple design and used the world over has never been celebrated in a museum of art and design?

I live in an old farmhouse where most of the land has been sold to neighbouring farms. Like with many farms in the areas, there are old and rusty milk cans lying about. These are no longer in use and are slowly rusting away. I was looking at some beside one of our sheds, and being a scientist, I started asking myself questions about milk cans. Who made them? When were they invented? Were they all made of steel? Are milk cans still made today? Are they all the same shape?

(A collection of copper and brass milk cans, dating back to the late 19th C. or early 20th C. The one labelled 'orange juice' is an example of upcycling. On the ground are examples of milk can art. Image Credit - Ian Spellerberg)

I searched many books and milk company records but was not able to find answers to all these questions. I decided to find out all I could about milk cans for the purpose of preserving that information. I have been gathering information (from magazines, books, reports, retired farmers and retired dairy workers) for a few years. I have found it interesting that I often came across India during my search for both examples of milk cans and for information.

Milk containers date back thousands of years whether they are used for milk from cows, buffalos, goats or other domestic animals. Many materials have been used to make milk containers including clay, leather, copper, bronze, steel, aluminium and plastic.

(The design for Guernsey copper pots milk or cream cans dates back to thousands of years. A new one and others made in the last 20 years. Image Credit - from Spellerberg's collection)

Some designs for milk containers have remained unchanged for thousands of years. For example, the spherical shape of the milk cans (jugs) used on the Islands of Guernsey (one of the Channel Isles off the coast of France) has altered very little over the last thousand years. Originally made of tin-plated steel, they were later made of copper with tin-plating on the inside. Another very old design is the brass milk pot used in Rajasthan and carried on the head by women (a few pots at a time). I have seen many photographs of these brass milk pots but I know nothing about them.

The most common and enduring shape for milk cans the world over has been a straight sided steel can with a narrow neck, two handles and a tight-fitting lid. However, some milk cans are square (there have been square glass milk bottles), or cylindrical from top to bottom, or conical shaped, and even oval shaped. The range in size or volume of milk cans comes as a big surprise. The largest examples I have in my collection hold about 25 gallons. Filled with milk, they would weigh about 198lbs (90kg). The people who moved these cans must have had considerable strength and skill. Milk cans of about one gallon are common. There were smaller milk cans of one pint, half a pint, and a quarter of a pint. The smallest I have is just 1/8th of a pint! It would have been used for delivering a small quantity of cream.

(A milk can insulation jacket extreme left. The others are among the largest milk cans in spellerberg's collection and date back to the early 20th century. Image Credit - Ian Spellerberg)

Transport of milk cans has varied enormously over the years. The practice of carrying milk cans on the head, or balancing two cans on a yoke around the neck, has largely disappeared. Milk cans balanced on a bicycle is still a common sight in some countries, including in parts of India. In England, during the late 19th C. specially-made tricycles were a common method of transportation. Hand carts, carts pulled by dogs, donkeys, horses or buffalo have all been common sights. Dog carts were particularly in common use in central Europe for many years. With mechanisation came transport of milk cans by trucks, trains and tankers. It was the transport by rail that brought about the conical shape of milk cans (called milk churns after the design of wooden butter churns). The wide base provided greater stability and when the cans were empty, the conical shape made it easy to stack them two or three high.

In many countries, milk is now transported by tanker. However, stainless steel and plastic milk cans are still made today in several countries, particularly in India. They are also used in many countries whether it be for cow's milk, buffalo milk or goat's milk. The milk can has been part of human society for a very long time and continues to play a part in society. Indeed, throughout history, the milk can could be said to have fostered communication within societies. Many old retired farmers have told me that for many families the purchase of their first milk can was a very special event. I have found many old photographs showing the family proudly standing by their first milk can. Empty milk cans were sometimes used as a means of sending handwritten messages or transporting dairy products such as butter or cheese.

(Ian Spellerberg purchased this decorated can which appears to be a milk can from India in Singapore in 2010. Image Credit - Ian Spellergberg)

Long after some milk cans have served their purpose, they have sometimes been preserved as folk art. Cleaned of rust and brightly painted, they now sit proudly in the house as a reminder of days gone past. But it's not just old cans that have been turned into folk art. There is now a demand for painted cans that look like milk cans. I have some beautiful examples that were made in India.

Everyone knows what recycling means. But have you heard of upcycling? This is about extending the life of an object by using it for a different purpose. Old milk cans are probably the best example. No longer used to hold milk, the cans become letter boxes, lamp stands, garden rollers, seats, tables, pots for plants, bread and flour bins, soft drink dispensers and umbrella stands.

For centuries, many product designs have been inspired by nature. Milk cans were designed as a necessity. They were designed to be functional. Why then has the typical milk can been the subject of some games and even sports? In Ireland, for example, there is an annual milk can rolling competition that takes place along the main streets.

(Ian Spellerberg with a milk can outside parmiter's antiques shop in Exmouth rd, Portsmouth, UK in 2013. Image credit - Christopher Spellerberg.jpg)

Even paintings and ornaments have been inspired by the typical milk can design. Silver salt and pepper pots have been made in the image of the milk can. Other objects include money boxes, match holders and glue pots. Modern examples include milk can-shaped containers holding confectionary or string.

I don't think that the continuing use of the milk can design is about nostalgia or clinging to old values. I believe that the milk can design is seen as something of a beauty. Some of the best modern uses of the milk can design have been for hanging lamps or desk lamps. I happen to be writing this article in the light of a 'milk can' desk lamp that was made in India.

The milk can has served us well for centuries. But little information has been persevered about milk cans. The design is repeated in art and in ornaments. Surely that design has a place in museums of art and design. I would love to hear from any reader about anything to do with the design of milk cans, and particularly anecdotes about making them and using them.

(Readers can email information or anecdotes on behalf of Ian Spellerberg to: marisha.karwa@dnaindia.net)

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