How Milk Got on Pennsylvania’s Breakfast Table

This post is based on an article that was previously published in Pennsylvania Heritage, Winter 2020.

Cropped Milk Bottling.JPG
Ronella Back and Maria Mansell operate a Sealrite Hooding Machine at the Supplee Wills Jones Company’s milk bottling plant in Philadelphia. May 4, 1945. Pennsylvania State Archives.

Though milk has always been a part of Pennsylvania agriculture, our favorite dairy drink hasn’t always been on our kitchen tables. Milk played a marginal role in most Pennsylvanian’s diets until scientific breakthroughs and the demands of war turned it into the popular superfood we all know today.

Before pasteurization and refrigeration were invented in the late 19th century, Pennsylvanians were far more likely to get their dairy in the form of butter and cheese. When liquid milk appeared at a meal it was usually for infants, the elderly, or sick people. Most healthy adults didn’t drink liquid milk by itself—it was usually cooked into foods or served over porridge or custard.

In the 19th century milk was dangerous sometimes even deadly. Contagious diseases like typhoid, scarlet fever, and tuberculosis were often traced to contaminated milk. A.J. Bohl, a state health official, recalled how easy it was to get sick from milk growing up in Pennsylvania the 1880s: “All over the state we drank milk raw from the cow, peddled about in large cans from whence it was tin-dippered out into our own container. Remember how we used to put the milk pail out on the front porch, with the pennies inside, so that the milkman could rattle ‘em out and fill ‘er up with milk? And the pennies! Who had them last? The ragman maybe, the butcher, the grocer, who knows? Poor pennies, all full of nice healthy germs to contaminate the milk pail and the milk.”[1] These diseases killed thousands annually and made Pennsylvanians think twice before drinking milk or offering it to their children.

Milk drinkers in Pennsylvania’s towns and cities were most at risk. In the early 1800s, many urban dairies sold “swill milk.” Cows fed cheap fermented grain byproducts from nearby distilleries produced an inferior milk diluted with water and colored with chalk.[2] It wasn’t until The Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers blamed swill milk and sickly cows for high infant mortality rates that Pennsylvania began to pass laws to keep milk pure and clean.

However, progress was uneven and small dairies and family farms continued to produce their own dirty milk well into the 20th century. In 1919, Pennsylvania health inspector wrote:

Whenever a family saves up two or three hundred dollars, it does into an alleged dairy business. I have closed a lot of these alleged dairies; one of them I am going to describe. The floor of the kitchen was so dirty that it looked like a slaughter house; there was a hundred chickens running around, all kinds of waste was thrown outside the kitchen door and these people were selling milk to a modern mining town near by. They did not sell any milk after my investigation. I asked the woman whether she had any caps and where they bottled the milk. She got the caps out of an old dirty box. There were a million flies about.[3] 

By 1914 the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture reported the laws were working and milk was much more trustworthy. Farms in the state produced more milk than any other dairy product for sale: “on the farm, instead of the raising of pigs and young cattle, you find only cows.”[4] Though milk was safer and plentiful, it was still not a common part of everyday meals. It took groundbreaking advances in nutrition and two world wars to bring milk to Pennsylvania refrigerators and breakfast tables.

In the 1910s, scientists realized certain foods like milk cured deadly deficiency diseases like scurvy, pellagra, and rickets. Nutritionists discovered Vitamin A in 1918 and soon word spread that this essential nutrient was abundant in milk and leafy vegetables. Armed with scientific evidence, Pennsylvania’s dairy farmers advertised their milk as a source of health, strength, and vitality and its popularity soared.

Along with milk advertising, Pennsylvania’s government officials encouraged families to make milk a part of their daily routine. In the 1920s schoolteachers were encouraged to ask their students “Do you drink your milk every day?” along with questions about washing hands and brushing teeth.[5] In 1935 the Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction (Education) recommended children drink at least a quart of milk daily and 25 cents of every dollar families spent on food be reserved for milk.[6]

As Pennsylvanians were learning the health benefits of milk, they also became aware of the danger that poor health posed to their country. During World War I, public health officials reported more than half of recruits were rejected due to poor health. According to one USDA official, “deficiency of milk in their diet as young children” was the chief cause. It became clear that milk wasn’t just for personal health, it was important for the safety of the country too.[7]

When World War II broke out, milk production became a top priority for Pennsylvania farmers. With many serving in the military, dairy farmers suffered from labor shortages and had to work twelve to fourteen hour days to keep up with demand. Thousands of Pennsylvania women entered the dairy industry, working on farms, bottling plants, and on delivery routes. Despite the difficulties in Pennsylvania production rose to 610 million pounds of milk annually by the end of the war.[8] It was enough for each Pennsylvanian to have four quarts of milk per week throughout the war years.

Wartime cookbooks and meal plans also looked to milk to substitute for scarce foods needed overseas like sugar and red meat. A glass of the white frothy drink at breakfast provided energy and staved off hunger the rest of the day. For families planning meat-less and wheat-less meals, drinking milk was just as patriotic as saving scrap or planting a victory garden. In 1945 Governor Martin proudly called Pennsylvania milk “vital to total victory in the fight for freedom and our way of life.”[9] After the war milk remained at the center of good nutrition and meal planning in Pennsylvania; it’s hard to find a kitchen without it today.

Taste and nutrients were not the only ingredients in the transformation of milk’s importance from a marginal 19th century food to what it is today. Reformers worked tirelessly to keep milk disease-free, farmers and marketers promoted it with scientific evidence and endless creative meal ideas, and government officials protected it during the hardest war years until it found its place in our hearts (and refrigerators).


[1] Bohl, A.J. “Not So Long Ago- And Now” Pennsylvania’s Health, March-April 1930, 19-20.

[2] “Swill Milk Plenty,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), August 2, 1889.

[3] “Swill Milk Plenty,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), August 2, 1889.

[4] Smith, Eric “Agriculture in Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2001, 4.

[5] Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction, “Course of Study in School Health: Hygiene and Physiology” Harrisburg, PA, 1927, 146.

[6] Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction, “Nutrition and the School Lunch” Harrisburg, PA, 1935, 21.

[7] Wiley, Harvey W. “Milk,” Good Housekeeping Volume 66 No. 2, February 1918, 50.

[8] Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, “Pennsylvania at War 1941-1945,” Harrisburg, PA, 1946, 61.

[9] “Governor’s Office Press Release,” 1945, Carton 2, War History Program of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, 1938-1947, Pennsylvania State Archives.


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