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Vintage milk can carries regional appeal

In this Ask the Experts inquiry, Dr. Anthony J. Cavo fields a reader's question regarding what was thought to be a cream can. Cavo not only discussed the difference between cream can and milk can, he provided regional history of the can's origins.

Q I’m enclosing a picture of my cream can. I understand this cream can is circa 1830. It says on it “QUEENS BORO FARM PROD Inc. L.I. CITY N.Y.” It sits on a very old milking stool. It measures 13-1/2 inches to the top of the lid and the diameter is 29 inches. Thank you so much for your time and trouble.
— T.K.
Grahamsville, N.Y.

Milk Can Holds History

A I know a bit about the dairy business. My sister-in-law’s family was in the dairy business for over 100 years. Her dad began delivering milk at the age of 17. He did so until a few months prior to his death at the age of 71. As a child, I lived in Brooklyn and Queens and we actually had our milk delivered by Queensboro Farms.

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Queensboro Farm Products, currently a third-generation family owned business in Canastota, New York, has its roots in early 20th century Harlem, New York on a small dairy farm of a woman named Sarah Miller. Her sons opened the Harlem River Dairy in 1909, which became Queensboro Farm Products after World War I. They distributed milk throughout Pennsylvania and upstate New York. Plus, they ventured into your region in Grahamsville. This would explain the presence of their milk can in your area.

Size and Features Differentiate Milk and Cream Can

Your can is a milk can rather than a cream can. It is much smaller. Although milk cans have been used since the 19th century, yours is definitely 20th century. During the 19th century, milk cans were composed of three pieces soldered together. The seams resulting from the solder were tough to clean and often served as a nidus for infection; your early 20th century milk can is rolled and molded in a single piece.

These cans were used for the storage and transportation of milk. Farmers, or deliverymen, would load cans on trains or milk wagons, which, in turn, delivered dairy products to certain distribution areas. People would bring their own smaller cans to the milk wagon and the deliveryman would fill them with the use of a ladle.

Sanitation was not very well controlled; the can was constantly opened and closed until the 10 gallons had been distributed; very often the cans were not cleaned well after use. Those who had the milk from the top of the can received the highest cream content milk and those whose milk came from the dregs received the lowest cream content milk. Milk cans were not well insulated, which caused the milk to freeze in winter and sour quickly during summer. During the late 1930s, the use of milk cans began to wane when bulk tank trucks began collecting milk from farms.

Modern Popularity of Milk Cans

Many milk cans have been painted and decaled for use in kitchens or as decorative touches. At home growing up we used one as a breadbox.

The prices for milk cans are all over the place depending on the age and dairy cans bringing higher prices in the region they served. Your milk can has the old swing, bale handles, which are more desirable than the fixed handles seen on most milk cans.

Despite the distressed appearance of your milk can, it might sell, along with the milk stool, in the $80 to $130 range in the New York-Pennsylvania area.