An unexpected archeological dig

My current school set up a little museum of archival material a few years ago, to coincide with the opening of our then-new school assembly hall. A piece about my research into epidiascopes was the focus of one of my very first blog entries (in 2006).

Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for a third-of-a-pint “school milk” glass bottle, without a lot of success. What used to be such a ubiquitous object in primary schools of the 1950s and 60s and essentially vanished off the face of the earth. Recently, I was given a few regular one-pint (600 ml) milk bottles and even a half-pint cream bottle, but numerous visits to antique stores proved fruitless. In 2007, the Royal Easter Show featured a special offer: plastic replicas of the “school milk” bottles (but marked 200 ml) – and I was beginning to think that was going to be as close as we could ever get. One of the teachers has a waxed paper drinking straw of the same bygone era as the milk bottles, which she has promised to donate if we can find a bottle, but yesterday we were doing the happy dance of an archeologist!

Two glass 600 ml milk bottles (1970s) and an Imperial half pint cream bottle (1960s). For scale, they stand next to my plastic replica of a 1960s Dairy Farmers’ school milk 1/3 pint bottle (from the 2007 Sydney Royal Easter Show).

The workmen excavating the ground for our new library’s foundations found, on the site of the old library, two examples of actual 1/3 pint “school milk” bottles buried in the rubble. They are both embossed, in slightly different ways, with “1/3 PINT PASTEURISED MILK” in raised lettering.

The “Moment in time” episode (#37) of the ABC-TV series, “Can we help?”, and the online transcript, explains that the “School Milk Scheme” was originally the idea of the British Medical Association, which had promoted that children under thirteen years of age needed a daily ration of milk. It “would be beneficial for school children’s physical and mental development”, and by 1951 the Menzies’ government had all Australian primary school students being offered milk daily. It was supposedly promoting “bone growth and well being and general good health”, but more cynical types considered it was a program to remove a glut of milk from local sources. The scheme ended in 1973 under the direction of the Whitlam government, no doubt reacting to Nugget Coombes’ full report into government spending. Supposedly, “one of the things he discovered when he looked at the school milk scheme was that it wasn’t doing any good at all. It had a marginal or very slight effect on the health of children” and the scheme was scrapped – just as many schools took delivery of fridges, if I recall, that would have kept the milk icy cold (for a change!)

Ask any adult who was at school in the 50s and 60s and they’ll all have some wild and wacky anecdotes about school milk. Amongst my own is the solving of the mystery of the little black specks that began appearing in our classroom’s milk supply one term. New milk monitors had been appointed, and it was their job to remove all the silver foil caps from the bottles and insert the waxed paper straws, thus encouraging even the laziest student to partake of his average daily allowance of dairy! After several frustrating days of putting up with the enigmatic black speckles, we finally caught Jeffrey, the shorter of the two monitors, standing atop the crate of opened bottles in his plastic-sandalled feet, spruiking his wares to all and sundry. Yes, it was little chunks of fine asphalt gravel, trapped in the crevices of his footwear, which had been polluting our milk.

School milk
Our amazing archeological find!

2 thoughts on “An unexpected archeological dig

  1. Oh the memories. I really hated that stuff once it went warm from sitting in the morning sun in Summer (Winter wasn’t too bad). I remember some kids were lucky enough to have parents who let them bring some Milo in a twist of wax paper which they then put into their milk to give it some flavour. I was lucky in 5th & 6th class that I played the flute in the school band for assembly every morning & therefore was excused from having to partake of the icky milk as it would have made flute playing quite difficult!

  2. Hi Laureen,

    Thanks for sharing your memories!

    I was shocked, a few years ago when I arrived at Penrith PS, to learn that some schools used to have access to special drinking straws filled with flavouring! (I know you can buy Sipahh brand Milk Flavouring Straws today, but this was way back in the school milk era!)

    At my own primary school, in the 60s, our weekly winter treat was for the Mothers’ Club to come up and turn the infants’ school’s milk entitlement into yummy hot cocoa, and anyone who forgot to bring their trusty plastic cocoa mug on the right day missed out, and had to put up with their usual 1/3 pint of plain milk, sipped up in a waxed paper straw. Fond memories of Arncliffe PS!


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