How have manufactured milk cartons transformed the way we consume milk?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Obviously the best way to store fresh milk is in the cow until it is needed; however, that is not a viable option for anyone who doesn't live on a farm and own a dairy cow--which is virtually everyone in the entire country. There was a time when much of the country did live on farms and could get fresh milk and didn't have to worry about keeping it from spoiling. The demographics changed during the Industrial Revolution, and farmers had to figure out a way to deliver their fresh milk to the urban dwellers, and the city people had to find a way to keep it fresh until they could drink it.

About this same time, mechanized milking became possible, and this allowed fewer farmers to produce more milk. Unfortunately, more milk was a problem because there was no refrigeration, and the result was a lot of waste. Milk was delivered to homes in glass bottles every day by a milkman, but families still had to consume today's milk today, with no opportunity to save what was left or get more if they needed it.

The first attempts at using paper cartons began in 1906 in the San Francisco area, but the paper disintegrated. Though they fixed that problem, the glue also leeched into the carton and contaminated the milk. Eventually someone designed a paper milk carton that worked. 

While they may not be connected, the increase in milk production and the invention of refrigeration happened concurrently, in the 1910s. Many claim to have invented the paper milk carton, but the patent for it is registered to 

John Van Wormer and his milk carton was basically the same as the one we use today. It's called a gable-top, in reference to the innovation of the spout temporarily glued into a ridge and unleashed by [a] pinching-pulling motion.

This carton is easy and quick to make because it is two simple pieces glued together, and it does not require a lid or a cap. The first cartons were made of paperboard and the same is true today; however, the paperboard is now coated with a layer of polyethylene to keep the paper carton from "sweating." The earliest cartons did not have a spout but had to be cut open in order to pour the milk.

This carton, coupled with the advent of the refrigerator, changed the way we consume milk, though it took more than twenty years for the cartons to begin replacing glass containers in any significant numbers. The downside is that we have created more waste to go in our landfills; the upside is that there is much less waste and convenience. We do not have to plan ahead so stringently, as people had to do with the milkman who only came once a day; and because of the carton and refrigeration (in addition to homogenization, of course), we can keep milk much longer. 

In short, the biggest change in consumption which the paper carton prompted is the flexibility to drink as much milk as we want whenever we want it. Milk waste has undoubtedly decreased, though garbage waste has certainly increased. In two words, the milk carton made the way we handle milk more convenient and accessible. 

The latest evolution of the milk carton in America is the plastic bottle; however, there are still plenty of products, including milk, that are packaged in paper cartons. 

Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Humans have been drinking milk from domesticated animals for millenniums; anthropologists believe that the development of agriculture, around 7000 BC, saw the first widespread consumption of animal milk. But it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century that large numbers of people began to consume milk on a regular basis. A huge boost to milk consumption can be credited to the work of French chemist and biologist Louis Pasteur who developed “pasteurization,” a process that kills harmful bacteria in milk. This innovation made milk more desirable and demand became high. A new way to deliver milk needed to be implemented. Railroads were the answer; they led to the increased delivery of milk in the 1840s and 50s. By 1900, more than 256 million gallons of cow’s milk was being delivered in the United States via rail.

Glass bottling of milk started in the 1870s; these bottles were sealed with a waxed paper disk. Glass bottles were used until 1932, when plastic-coated paper milk cartons became commercially available. While glass milk bottles continued to be available for a many more years, but industry was switching to cartons. These packages were water-tight and soon were found in almost every home, as milk became less expensive to purchase and less cumbersome to stock.

Milk carton production is remarkably precise, as it must be to prevent spoilage or contamination. While wax was the first sealant, by 1937, industry shifted to the more reliable polyethylene by 1940.

There are two big steps in milk carton production. First, a manufacturer cuts and prints out the carton. These cut outs are shipped flat. These “knocked down” cartons are then sent to a packager, who assembles the cartons, fills, and seals them. This process has remained largely unchanged for over seventy years.

Source: How Products are Made, ©2002 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved