Celebrate milk cans as collectibles

Milk cans – used to store and ferry dairy products from farm to market – have been incorporated into home decor and have become a collector’s dream.
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By Sara Jordan-Heintz

Ian Spellerberg is standing in his largest milk can (25 gallons) from New Zealand and is holding the smallest milk can in the world (1/8th of a pint) from England. His adopted cat Florence (found as a kitten on a country road) watches with interest. Also shown are three modern plastic milk cans on the left. On the right there are two unusual cans with spouts.

Ian Spellerberg is standing in his largest milk can (25 gallons) from New Zealand and is holding the smallest milk can in the world (1/8th of a pint) from England. His adopted cat Florence (found as a kitten on a country road) watches with interest. Also shown are three modern plastic milk cans on the left. On the right there are two unusual cans with spouts.

Milk cans – used to store and ferry dairy products from farm to market – have not only served a utilitarian purpose, as well as been incorporated into home décor, but have become a collector’s dream.

These pieces evoke nostalgia in now grown-up farm kids, as well as those who recall the halcyon days when the family farm was king.

Beginning in the 19th century, farmers transported milk to customers using these cans, which were then loaded onto trains or milk wagons bound for distribution areas or straight to dairy processing plants, cheese factories or creameries.

Ian Spellerberg of Christchurch, New Zealand has amassed a collection of around 240 milk cans, ranging in vintage, design and country of origin.

“World-wide there is a lot of information about milk bottles but not milk cans,” he says.

The mission for milk cans

“I had been collecting and researching milk cans for several years and discovered that no one had ever written a book about milk cans. I decided that there should be a celebration of the humble milk can because of the beautiful and clever designs and because the milk can has been a significant part of the social aspects of dairy farming for over 100 years.”

Ian Spellerberg, Milk Cans: A Celebration of their History, Use, and Design, Appley Valley, Minn.: Astragal Press, a division of Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. https://bit.ly/2JMjc2W

Ian Spellerberg, Milk Cans: A Celebration of their History, Use, and Design, Appley Valley, Minn.: Astragal Press, a division of Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. https://bit.ly/2JMjc2W

Spellerberg is the author of Milk Cans A Celebration of Their History, Use and Design, released by Astragal Press (now a division of Rowman & Littlefield) in late 2018.

Emeritus Professor of Nature Conservation at Lincoln University, New Zealand, he has written or edited several textbooks. Prior to his time at Lincoln University, he served as director of the Environmental Sciences Program at the University of Southampton, England.

He has also worked in Germany, Australia and Antarctica. Today, he and his wife live in an old farmhouse near Christchurch. Semi-retired, he still finds himself writing books, magazine articles and conducting research.

He first became familiar with milk cans as a boy spending time on his uncle’s farm. But it wasn’t until about 15 years ago that he delved into research and collecting.

“I placed an advertisement in a local paper seeking information about milk cans. I collect and research not only real milk cans but also ornaments and functional items in the shape of milk cans, miniature milk cans, milk can paintings and other images. I am also experimenting with milk can art installations,” he explains.

A Hershey Chocolate Co. lorry transporting milk. Circa 1918. Courtesy of The National Dairy Shrine (USA).

A Hershey Chocolate Co. lorry transporting milk. Circa 1918. Courtesy of The National Dairy Shrine (USA).

Mark Nosbisch, co-operator of Rusty Relics Flea Market, located in Anamosa, Iowa, says milk can collecting is an offshoot of collecting dairy items in general.

“A lot of milk cans have the creamery name embossed into the can so the collector could put together area collections,” Nosbisch suggests. “Also, many cans have brass tags affixed to them with the name of the farmer that owned them. In addition, there are different sizes and also cans made of stainless steel, as they are more sanitary than the older steel cans. You can also get the strainers that fit on top of the can for when you pour the milk into them. This is what collectors are looking for.”

Spellerberg’s cans date from the early 19th century to the modern era, and hail from many places including: New Zealand, Australia, India, Bhutan, United States, England, Wales, France, Czech Republic, Portugal, Netherlands, Argentina, Slovakia, Russia, Kenya, Bulgaria, South Africa, Hungary, Turkey and Guernsey (one of the Channel Islands in the English Channel).

Ten-gallon milk cans arriving at a dairy processing plant. The man on the left is known as a ‘sniffer.’ Courtesy of The National Dairy Shrine (USA).

Ten-gallon milk cans arriving at a dairy processing plant. The man on the left is known as a ‘sniffer.’ Courtesy of The National Dairy Shrine (USA).

“I have travelled as far away as from New Zealand to England to search for not only milk cans, but also to visit old dairy sites and museums and libraries to look for information about milk cans,” he notes. “I used to go to a lot of farm sales looking for examples. If I happen to be traveling somewhere, either in New Zealand or overseas, I always stop off at antique and collectable shops and recycling yards looking for milk cans.”

The design of some milk cans date back a thousand years. Being brought into the 19th and 20th centuries, Spellerberg noted there were hundreds of U.S. patents issued for improvements to milk cans.

Spellerberg’s china counter pan (milk can) that stood on the counter of a dairy is a very rare item in his collection. It dates to circa 1896.

Guernsey milk pots. Guernsey is one of the Channel Islands just off the northern coast of France. These containers have been made in this same design for over 1,000 years. The examples here range in volume from one gallon to an eighth of a pint.

Guernsey milk pots. Guernsey is one of the Channel Islands just off the northern coast of France. These containers have been made in this same design for over 1,000 years. The examples here range in volume from one gallon to an eighth of a pint.

“The milk would be decanted from that counter pan to any small container brought by the customer. Very, very few counter pans have survived. They were used widely in the 1890s,” he explains.

Many of the cans were made then passed on to retailers.

“I have old trade catalogues from several U.S. stores such as Charles Williams of New York City, 1913. Another is the Chicago-based store of Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett and Co., 1917,” he says. “I think what is so interesting in general terms, is milk cans were made not only by factories, but some were made by local tinsmiths, and some were homemade on the farm.”

Most cans were constructed from galvanized iron. Others were crafted from wood, bamboo, steel, brass, copper, glass, tin and plastic.

“A favorite of mine is the smallest can, at 1/8th of a pint, and from England,” he explains. “It was used for cream at a time when there was no refrigeration and the milk vendor made two deliveries a day. Another is the Brass Dutch milk can that dates back to the early 19th century and for which there is an old drawing of that same shaped can being carried by a milkmaid.”

This is a rare example of a four gallon brass milk can that dates back to the early 1800s or possibly the late 18th century. The shape is typical of early western Europe.

This is a rare example of a four gallon brass milk can that dates back to the early 1800s or possibly the late 18th century. The shape is typical of early western Europe.

The collector is able to stand in his largest milk can (25 gallons), which comes from New Zealand. Some of the more unusual cans in his collection sport spouts. He said Guernsey-made milk pots have been made in this same design for over 1,000 years. They range in volume from one gallon to an eighth of a pint.

His two Indian brass milk pots were used in rural villages to transport milk or water. He says they were treasured items passed down in families.

In the 1800s, there wasn’t government inspection of dairy farms. Instead, the milk itself would be tested for the amount of solids it contained. Plug covers and vegetable parchment were employed as sheaths, but those could be costly. Sometimes, the milk spoiled before it could be safely consumed.

How does one go about displaying and caring for such a mammoth collection?

“Some are at the front gate, some are along the drive, some are in the kitchen courtyard, some are on the veranda, and some are inside,” he said. “There is a large part of the collection in a purpose-built ‘Dairy Can Shed’ and another large part in a display room (detached from the house). Each can, when it arrives, is photographed, dimensions and volume recorded, and restoration is undertaken if needed.”

 Indian brass milk pot.This container is of an ancient design. They were used in rural villages to transport milk or water. These were treasured items and were handed down the family from one generation to another.

Indian brass milk pot.This container is of an ancient design. They were used in rural villages to transport milk or water. These were treasured items and were handed down the family from one generation to another.

Spellerberg says steel milk cans were subject to harsh conditions, being dropped and bounced in the course of their lives, resulting in dents and damage to the bottom rings.

“There was quite a large industry involved in restoring damaged cans – taking out the dents and replacing parts,” he adds. “In addition to repairs, milk cans were subject to very thorough cleaning process – which started as a manual cleaning process but then became automated with brushes and steam and water.”

He said milk can art is a thriving cottage industry, which utilizes steel or aluminum cans. Before cans are painted, the metal must to be dry, greaseless and free of rust.

“Slight rust can easily be removed with steel wool or with gentle brushing using a steel brush. Cans that are covered in a deep layer of rust may require powder or sand blasting. As with any restoration process, thorough preparation is essential,” Spellerberg says.

Painting a rare milk can would decrease its value, and therefore is discouraged.

Fill a milk can with flowers or greenery, create a welcome sign at your front door or convert a can into a stool.

To view “11 Charming Things You Can Do With An Old Milk Can,” visit https://www.hometalk.com/9927947/s-11-charming-things-you-can-do-with-an-old-milk-can

Ian Spellerberg’s advice for the beginner collector:

1. Try to document or record every example that you find. Photograph the cans, measure the external dimensions and the volume. Record all that information along with the place that you found the can, the price paid, and any other information.

2. Collect and research. That is, as well as collecting the actual milk cans, search for information such as patents, old photographs and newspaper articles. Also, try to find people who used to work in dairy factories.

3. If you don’t have the space for real milk cans (they can take up a lot of space) try collecting miniature and toy milk cans. The same applies as above. Photograph the items and keep records of all relevant information.

4. Be proud of your collection – display the cans and celebrate them!

“I am most grateful for people from around the world (including the USA) who have kindly provided me with information, literature and photos. The book would not have been possible without their generosity,” he says.

More information about repairing milk cans for re-use and for preparation for painting can be found in his book.

Spellerberg may be reached at spellerbergian@gmail.com.

Sara Jordan-Heintz is an award-winning writer, editor and historian. Her articles have been published by the Associated Press and in Discover Vintage America, Farm Collector and several other magazines. Her new book Going Hollywood: Midwesterners in Movieland is out now. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SaraEliz90 or contact her at: rose111@netins.net

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