Milk delivery in bottles probably began in Alberta about 1906. Prior to that, dairies delivered milk in bulk and then ladled out the requested quantity into the customer’s containers. With the advent of milk bottles, came the creation of a very interesting group of collectibles: glass milk bottles with the dairy names on them. The first of these bottles had the names embossed (or moulded) into the glass. A number of the earliest ones in the empire or bowling pin shape, have survived and are much sought after. That shape was followed by several stubby shapes before the more standard shape and height of bottles were adopted. Sizes were always half pint, pint, and quart, imperial measure. Some dairies sold milk (or cream) in quarter pint sizes in other Canadian provinces, but I have not seen any for Alberta dairies.
Various slogans such as “please Wash & Return” or “Not Bought or Sold” were gradually added to the embossed bottles through the 1910s, 1920s, and later. As well as shape and size, these slogans can be used to differentiate the numerous (for some dairies) bottle groups. Manufacturer’s marks on the base also assist in this process.
Perhaps in the early 1930’s, coloured label bottles were introduced. In Canada, these are known as “applied colour labels” or “ACL”. Many collectors prefer to focus on these because of the attractive colours, the interesting designs of the front labels and the advertising slogans on the reverse.
While I do enjoy the ACL bottles, I tend to favour embossed bottles because they are from the earliest times, as well as the interesting histories of the issuing dairies.
Milk bottles with dairy names on them were used by 80 Alberta dairies and creameries. Some of the earliest of these were: Carlyle Dairy and P. Pallesen Dairy, both of Calgary, Red Deer Creamery, and Warren Huff (Jasper Dairy) and Edmonton City Dairy (ECD) both of Edmonton. Carlyle, Pallesen, Red Deer Creamery and ECD all began with Empire-style bottles; Carlyle in 1909 and ECD in 1906 for example.
Some larger dairies apparently placed numerous orders for smaller quantities of a variety of embossed bottles and later ACL bottles. So far I have identified 31 different bottle groups for Edmonton City Dairy, not counting the different slogans on the round two-colour label bottles. Palm Dairies, a large multi-plant operation, used 12 different groups of embossed and ACL bottles; not counting the many advertising slogans used on some groups. Woodland Dairy used 12 groups of bottles and Union Milk 10.
So there is lots of scope and plenty of challenges for the serious collector.
Contrasting with the larger dairy operations, were the smaller dairies which used only one style of embossed or coloured label bottle. Hamilton Dairy of Hanna, Alberta, used only embossed bottles, which I have seen in the quart and pint sizes. Whitehills Jersey Dairy of Red Deer used only green coloured label bottles (quart, pint and half pint sizes) all with only one slogan: Our Milk Builds Great Athletes.
Some dairies may have used bottles of only one size, since that is all that have come to light to date in some cases. For Wichman’s Dairy of Stony Plain, I have seen only a yellow-coloured label quart, while for North Edmonton Dairy I have only seen an embossed quart. The only bottle surfacing so far for Wirda Dairy of Rocky Mountain House is an embossed pint.
The introduction of applied colour labels allowed the dairies to expand greatly the types of logos, as well as the advertising slogans used on the reverses of bottles. While the Edmonton City Dairy used only four advertising slogans, Palm Dairy used as many as 17. Some dairies used two colour labeled bottles; ECD, Palm, Woodland, Pavan Dairy, Lethbridge. A few Alberta dairies used stylized nursery rhymes in their slogans. These included Camrose Creamery with Jack be Nimble, Jack and Jill, or Crystal Dairy, with Old King Cole.
As well as milk bottles, dairy collectors also hunt for a wide variety of related items to augment their basic collections. These include: milk bottle tops, milk and butter crates, cream cans, milk tokens, all of these with dairy names on them, calendars and dairy paper (invoices, letters, etc.) When displayed, all of these items can produce a very interesting and colourful collection.
Also of interest to the dairy collector, is an assortment of “go-withs”. These are dairy give-away advertising items. They include: milk top picks, cook books, needle kits, school rulers and blotters, ice cream serving trays and dairy anniversary booklets. Dairy signage is also highly collectible as are dairy “ice cream” clocks. Signs I have seen include trolley advertising cards from about 1928.
Milk bottle tops (the paper caps) are also fun to collect and easier to store and display. They range widely in rarity. Tops from some of the larger dairies are common, while those from some of the smaller dairies (e.g. Rife’s or Henry’s Dairies of Edmonton) are rare. The same applies to dairy tokens. Some, such as Brown’s Dairy and City Dairy, both of Drumletter, Fahler Dairy and High River Dairy are rare. Others such as Palm Dairies, Alpha Milk and Alpha Jersey Dairy of Calgary are very common. Prior to tokens, paper milk tickets were used by some dairies. These are very scarce. In the case of tokens, books have been published for each western province listing merchants and other tokens, including those issued by the dairies. Such books provide some structure to token collecting by defining the scope of what is out there. Alberta Trade Tokens by Donald Stewart provides an excellent guide for Alberta dairy token collectors.
Cream cans in the smaller sizes (one, two and three gallon) are nice collectibles. Many in these sizes have dairy names stamped on them. In my collection I have several dozen from the four western provinces. Milk crates and butter and cheese boxes are also collectible and come in many sizes, shapes and types. I display a lot of them, using them as supports for other displayed items.
Of assistance from the research standpoint are dairy calendars. As well as helping to date the time of a dairy’s operation, they often provide address details and the proprietor’s name. Old business records, letters, invoices and price lists are also of great interest to the collector.
Out of my collecting activities has grown a strong interest in the history of the dairies. So far this has led me to publish three books; The Milk Bottles of Edmonton City Dairy provides information about Edmonton City Dairy, details and photos of the bottles used, and information and photos of the myriad promotional items they used. Dairies of Edmonton provides a listing of the 134 dairies that operated in Edmonton from 1905 to 1955, with photos and individual histories including descriptions and photos of artifacts. My latest, Milk Bottles of Alberta, contains detailed listings, photos and sketches of the bottles used by the 80 dairies in Alberta. It also includes short histories of the dairies and creameries that used the bottles.