Collecting local milk bottles

The image of the milkman delivering bottles of milk and cream to the door is forever etched on the mind of most – even those of us too young to remember such deliveries. The image has become a symbol of a simpler, quieter time, as evidenced by its frequent use in films to establish a nostalgic setting. Such deliveries are a thing of the past almost everywhere. Perhaps that’s why so many have a fondness for milk bottles.

Those who have been bitten by the milk bottle collecting bug will find no end of possibilities for their collection. The are a vast array of different sizes, shapes, and colors of milk bottles. There are related bottles as well, such as those produced to hold cream or cottage cheese. One can’t forget the caps, either. Some collectors collect not the bottles themselves, but the caps that once sealed them shut.

The number of different dairies is almost beyond count;  most collectors specialize. Many focus on a particular dairy, or dairies within a particular geographical location. My own collection consists of milk bottles produced for dairies in Culver, Ind., which includes Cloverleaf Dairy, Lakeview Dairy, and Miller’s Dairy. I’ve heard that there are even bottles marked “Culver Military Academy,” but I’ve yet to find one. Some collectors search out only cream-top bottles. Others look for bottles with a particular design – such as cows, clover leafs, human faces, or polar bears. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

The New York Dairy Company is believed to be the first factory to produce milk bottles as we know them today. The first patent for a milk bottle was issued on March 23, 1880 – for a glass milk bottle with a glass lid and tin clip. Early examples are extremely costly and hard to find, but later milk bottles are far more affordable.

 Common milk bottles can be found for anywhere from $10 to $25. The prices go up from there. It’s not unusual to see milk bottles with price tags of $50, $100, and more.

If you don’t have a price guide, the best way to learn about selling prices is to comparison shop. Check out online and bottle show sellers. Make sure to check out several sources, however, to get a good idea of the price range of particular types of bottles. Depending on just one source may give you a distorted idea of values. You could run across a bargain or exorbitantly priced milk bottle, thus giving you a false sense of value. By checking out more than one source, you’ll virtually eliminate this danger.

Milk bottles, caps, and dairy related collectibles can be found at all the usual sources for antiques. They can also be found at bottle shows, at online shops, and, of course, eBay. When purchasing on eBay, remember that shipping can add considerably to the cost. Determine how much you’ll be paying for shipping and insurance before you bid.

It has been my experience that most traditional sources for antiques tend to offer more common milk bottles. The exception, of course, are the dealers who specialize in such bottles. To find more unusual milk bottles, attend milk bottle shows and check out the Web sites of milk bottle dealers. You will find some higher prices at these sources, but that’s because the merchandise is of greater quality and rarity. Remember, a hefty price tag doesn’t necessarily mean expensive. Quality pieces are worth the money.

Condition is a critical factor in determining value. Professional milk bottle dealers will accurately and thoroughly indicate condition, but amateurs often don’t adequately describe their bottles. Those who sell on eBay can be especially lax (although some true professionals can be found there as well).

Pay close attention to descriptions of condition. While a bottle may have no chips or cracks, it may have a good deal of case wear (caused by the bottles rattling around in the metal cases). Case wear is almost always present in used bottles. Minor scratches or marks on the glass are considered normal case wear, but if the wear is more pronounced the bottle isn’t considered in good condition even if it isn’t chipped or cracked. Remember, milk bottles have different standards of condition than many other forms of glassware.

When purchasing on eBay, through the mail, or from a Web site, be sure to check if the bottle will be shipped filled or empty. If a bottle is shipped filled, this means it comes filled with tiny Styrofoam pellets that look much like milk when the bottle is displayed. Getting a bottle filled is a nice bonus, as milk bottles are far more impressive when displayed filled. Pellets can be purchased, but it’s nice if the bottle comes already filled.

Unfortunately, milk bottle collectors must beware reproductions. Some reproductions that often show up on eBay are Null’s Chocolate Eyes Babyface, O’Fallons Hopalong Cassidy creamtop, and a Thatcher embossed bottle with a man milking the cow (the latter has been reproduced in many colors).

Author John Tutton (see books in resource section below) has an excellent Web page on reproductions at He notes that many milk bottles are reproduced by taking an old bottle and applying new paint with a stencil copied from an old bottle. These can easily be spotted as the new paint easily scrapes off. An original is painted, then annealed (heated and then slowly cooled to strengthen and harden), so the paint does not come off with ease. Tutton also notes that collectors should beware war slogans with the date 1951 on the base and bottles produced by the Wheaton Glass Works (producers of modern bottles that are often passed off as vintage).

The best way to avoid reproductions in this or any other collecting area is to educate yourself. Check out sites such as the one listed above, read guides, and talk to other collectors and dealers. Do this before making a purchase. Getting taken in by a reproduction piece will teach you a great deal about reproductions, but it’s an expensive way to learn. Even a few minutes spent checking up on reproductions can keep one from making costly mistakes.

It isn’t necessary to have a vast or valuable milk bottle collection to enjoy it. My own collection is limited to just a few milk bottles from Culver, Ind. Like many people, I collect a lot of things. I don’t have room for everything, so I often choose to keep my collections small. My bottles are neither costly nor rare, but they still bring back nostalgic memories of the past. Whenever I look at them, I remember a time that is no more. Go out and buy yourself a milk bottle you find especially appealing and it will transport you to a simpler, quieter time.

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