Roberts Milk Bottle


Roberts Milk Bottle


Eighty years ago, milk was often considered dangerous to drink. Today, it is a safe and industrial product. This bottle allowed for milk distribution across Nebraska and Iowa. It represents the rise of industrial farming and milk as a consumer product. The Roberts Milk company began in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1906. It later merged with Hiland Dairy in 2013. Transporting milk used to be dangerous because of the risk of it spoiling. Modern technology and sterilization have made milk a safe and consistent product. In recent years, milk production has increased while rates of drinking have decreased. Producing milk is less energy efficient compared to other staples. Yet, it is an important part of the agricultural economy. Some people in rural areas rely on a thriving dairy industry for their livelihood. Environmental and consumer trends, however, show a need for change in the dairy industry.


Today, Omahans buying a carton of milk may view it as mundane, but the process of storing and transporting milk used to be complex. Like many companies, Roberts Dairy used glass milk bottles to solve these problems. As a consumer good, milk has evolved from being a nonuniform and hazardous product (Dupuis, 2002) to a staple of the American diet. This uptick in consumption corresponds with a variety of environmental and societal impacts in the post-World War II period. While Omaha is not a city known for dairy production, as a prominent Midwestern center of commerce, it serves as a distribution hub for milk to be transported throughout the United States. The effects of this expansion diffuse out to a global scale and relates to broader discussions of the Anthropocene regarding industrialization, agriculture, and transport systems. The Roberts Milk bottle is representative of the domestic dairy agribusiness post World War II and its significance within the Anthropocene. Specifically, how a product consumed primarily by Western markets relates to the disproportionately greater ties to a global Anthropocene from Eurocentric and American origins.

The Roberts Milk bottle was produced by the Thatcher Glass Manufacturing Company between 1923 and 1954. While it is impossible to precisely locate where this particular bottle was made due to its lack of plant markings, it was likely either produced in the New York or Illinois bottle plant. (Lockhart, Schulz, Serr, & Lindsey, 2007) The bottle is composed of a thick glass body with a red synthetic “polyglazed” logo printed on it, as well as glass embossments on the lower rim. The design of the Roberts Milk bottle must be understood within the context of its intended use. Prior to the glass milk bottle, milk was delivered by a courier with a large metal reservoir that required each customer’s order be manually poured. The glass milk bottle was the successor of the metal milk pail and it made milk delivery more sanitary, efficient, and uniform. The bottles were delivered to consumer’s homes by a milk distributor and later retrieved so that they could be cleaned and reused for later deliveries. The thick glass that makes up the bottle was designed to be durable during manufacturing, delivery, usage, cleaning, and resealing. The design of the bottle prioritizes maximizing its lifespan and longevity, rather than solely managing the cost per unit. (Paper Milk Bottles, 1929) (Lockhart, Schulz, Serr, & Lindsey, 2007)

The Durham Museum focuses its collections and exhibits on local and regional history. Roberts Dairy is representative of Nebraska's roots in agriculture and it is also a local business that has existed in the community for over a century. Roberts Dairy, which changed its name to Hiland Dairy in 2013, began as a small milk delivery business in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1906. By 1929, the business had expanded to Omaha as well as Iowa. Roberts Dairy has an important role in local history because of its ties to the community and thus has been included in the Durham Museums archives. Roberts Dairy used the glass milk bottles produced by the Thatcher Glass Mfg. Co. to deliver their milk safely to consumers. Even though the glass bottle was produced outside of Nebraska, it is significant in the context of state and city history because it was used by Roberts Dairy in their local business operations and represents the company’s local history both as a manufacturer and distributor of milk. (Nohr, 2013) The Roberts Milk bottle is unique to Omaha and surrounding areas because of Roberts Dairy’s geographic presence and the period in which the bottle was in use. Roberts Dairy only served the Nebraska and Sioux City, Iowa communities during the period when glass milk bottles were primarily used. Furthermore, the time period in which this particular model of milk bottle was manufactured and used was limited to roughly a thirty-year period. In 1929, paper milk cartons were introduced into the milk delivery market and they began to replace their glass counterparts. The popularization of paper milk cartons led to the Roberts Milk bottle becoming increasingly uncommon both commercially and in the daily life of local residents. However, an identical bottle without the Roberts Dairy logo “polyglazed” on it is neither unique to Omaha nor is it rare. This model of glass milk bottle was extremely common throughout the United States as it was used by a multitude of milk delivery companies. (Tunick, 2009)

The Roberts Milk bottle was a link between local dairy producers and the homes of local residents. These dairy farms produced the milk for Roberts Dairy, the factories that filled and sealed the bottles was an employer for the community, and milk couriers delivered the filled bottles to consumers. Many local residents’ employment and livelihood were intimately related to the Roberts Milk bottle and the milk that was stored in it. The glass milk bottle also allowed Omahans to recreationally drink milk for pleasure without worrying about getting an unstandardized product that was unsanitary. Milk was once a relatively unsafe product that had extreme variations in the final goods delivered to consumers, which had negative effects on its rate of consumption. The glass milk bottle was a step towards the standardization of milk and securing it as a consumer staple in the diet of the average citizen. (Dupuis, 2002)

The way in which people interacted with the Roberts Milk bottle was both occupational and recreational. Local dairy farms produced the milk for Roberts Dairy, the factories in which the bottles were filled and sealed employed members of the local community, and milk couriers delivered the filled bottles to consumers. Many local residents’ employment and livelihood were intimately related to the Roberts Milk bottle and the milk that was stored in it. The glass milk bottle also allowed members of the local community to recreationally drink milk for pleasure without worrying about getting an unstandardized product that was unsanitary. Milk was once a relatively unsafe product that had extreme variations in the final goods delivered to consumers, which had negative effects on its rate of consumption. The glass milk bottle was a step towards the standardization of milk and securing it as a consumer staple in the diet of the average citizen. (Dupuis, 2002)

The Roberts Dairy milk bottle also reflects broader twentieth century shifts in industry and agriculture that extend beyond Omaha and Nebraska. Milk was not always a staple of the American diet. Milk and other dairy products would only enjoy widespread appeal after a decades-long period of innovation and refinement. At the turn of the 20th century, milk held a volatile reputation. Although pasteurization existed since the late 19th century, a lack of official regulation led to variable product quality. Inadequate refrigeration in transport and storage coupled with environmental contamination made milk a host for a variety of pathogens including tuberculosis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and typhoid fever (Valenze 2011, 210). The cocktail of microbes along with clots of dirt, traces of manure, and oxidation from corroded copper milking equipment (Tunick 2009) created large inconsistencies in dairy quality and lead physicians to classify it as a “living liquid” (Smith-Howard 2013, 12).

The desire to rehabilitate the quality of dairy stems from multiple sources. Early reform in America is primarily inspired by Progressive Era ideals. The idea of children, especially white upper-class children, becoming ill from milk consumption was reflected as a failure of American civilization. Protecting the wellbeing of this demographic ensured the maintenance of societal hierarchies during a period where nativism and fear of mass-immigration were prevalent. (Smith-Howard, 13). Additionally, the Progressive ideals of urban reform and desire for increased consumer protections developed a regulatory infrastructure to ensure the quality of milk (ibid). World War I also devastated food production chains and lowered populational nutrition in Europe. Governments around the world? assumed greater control over tenuous food supplies and relied heavily on “protective foods,” or dietary staples with enough nutritional content to sustain populations with access to limited food options (Valenze, 253). Milk was promoted as one such food and gained a foothold as a Western dietary staple.

The production and transport of milk underwent rapid changes in the 20th century as well. Treatment processes such as pasteurization heated milk at elevated temperatures to kill microbial pathogens. Human inspection was preferred initially due to mistrust in the recent technology, but the emerging accuracy and cost effectiveness of pasteurization made it the preferred method for ensuring milk purity (Tunick 2009). In 1924, only nine major US cities had a 98 percent milk pasteurization rate. By 1936, over 75 percent of all milk in cities with a population larger than 25,000 was pasteurized (USDA 1994, 9). By World War II, milk-borne epidemics virtually disappeared in the US (Tunick 2009).

The methods for transporting milk also evolved. More durable stainless steel and nickel-chromium materials replaced the easily corrodible copper equipment. (Tunick 2009). Additionally, more refined methods emerged to get milk to consumers. Traditionally, local milk arrived in large cans via horse-drawn carriage and distributed out to individuals in containers brought from home while long-distance transport occurred by railroad (Tunick 2009). However, insulated trucks and motor vehicles equipped with improved refrigeration systems began to replace these methods (USDA 1994, 3). This led to at-home milk delivery primarily by truck in glass bottles, and by 1940 approximately 70% of all milk delivery followed this method (USDA 1994, 11). By the mid 1940s, the paper milk carton became a more popular vessel due to its relatively inexpensive production costs. Additionally, the disposable nature of paper cartons removes the costs of sterilizing the bottles for reuse (Tunick 2009). Home delivery of milk, thus, declined to just 27 percent in 1970 (USDA 1994, 11).

While the glass bottle eventually became obsolete in comparison to paper or plastic, the dairy industry continued to expand. Larger, industrial dairy farms gradually overtook small family-operated enterprises. The average dairy herd size in 1964 was 32 and ballooned to 59 in 1987. Similarly, the quantity of alfalfa acres fed per cow increased from 0.9 to 1.3 (DuPuis 2002, 159). Increasing herd numbers and feed rates translated into greater milk production, as well as greater land utilization, resource consumption, and overall environmental impact. These rapid increases in industrialization and environmental strain correlate closely with the Great Acceleration of the Anthropocene. The Great Acceleration relates to a massive and exponential uptick in carbon emissions following World War II. The progression of the dairy industry’s production capabilities follows a similar timeline and the increased utilization of industrial dairy farming practices contributes to the uptick in carbon emissions comprising the Great Acceleration.

However, it is also important to note that per capita milk consumption has experienced a steady decline since 1975 (see appendix entry 2). This contributes to multiple factors including, but not limited to, a larger societal drift away from milk consumption coupled with greater availability of alternative dairy and a generally increased awareness of lactose intolerance. The issue of lactose intolerance specifically raises interesting implications for dairy as a global commodity. The percentage of individuals who possess lactase persistence, or the ability to metabolize lactose, ranges from 77-97 percent in Europeans and European-Americans (Wiley 2011, 19). In contrast, all other human populations (with the exception of Northern South Asians) possess lactase persistence rates well under 50 percent. Some populations such as Native Americans and East/Southeast Asians have lactase persistence rates of under 20 percent (Wiley 2011, 19). This raises the question of categorizing diary industrialization as a global phenomenon, or instead as a Western phenomenon imposed on other global nations.

Having dairy consumption and demand centered in Western nations challenges whether components of the Anthropocene are based on global environmental impact, or the Western perspective on what “global” means. A fair response to this assertion is demand for certain goods reasonably fluctuates between geographical regions. Though, this incongruity expands beyond milk or other products. Western nations historically impact the environment to a disproportionate degree tying back to the Industrial Revolution. While global environmental impacts occur during this period, industrialization and mass resource extraction primarily emanate from Western economic development and colonialist exploits. This creates a disparity where environmental impacts are shared but material benefits are isolated to Western nations. Though, if the dairy industry creates a global environmental impact, does the origin matter? Arguably, it does. An integral motivation for understanding the Anthropocene is so humanity has adequate strategies to address environmental impacts generated by it. If drivers for global environmental change originate in Western nations, responsibility for the change inherently applies to those nations. By extension, primary responsibility for addressing these changes also applies.

Therefore, the environmental impact of the dairy industry relates to the larger Anthropocene narrative. The primary discussion surrounds the environmental footprint of the industry, and how it will continue to reshape the planet if it is allowed to continue growing. The cattle industry, including dairy cattle, is inefficient and utilizes a disproportionate amount of water and energy resources relative to calories produced (McGregor 2017, 4). The data visualization demonstrates a steady downward trend in American milk consumption, and this trend is reflected in other nations as well (Wiley 2011, 86). However, there is an incongruity between milk production and consumption. From 1990 to 2009, the United States experienced an overall decrease in milk consumption from 105.1 to 91.2 kg per capita. Yet, production over the same period increased by a ratio of 1.28 (Wiley 2011, 86). This means that more dairy products are being crammed into a smaller market. Increasing dairy exports is a reasonable response. Though, with non-Western nations having high lactose intolerance rates, will there be a sufficient market for U.S dairy to supply? If supply outpaces demand, the economic importance of dairy agribusiness makes it difficult to halt or reduce production in response. This highlights a vital link between economics and industry when interpreting the impacts and trajectory of the Anthropocene.

The question of the post-World War II dairy industry’s place within the Anthropocene relies upon milk consumption being a global phenomenon rather than primarily a western one. To a high degree, the primary consumers of liquid milk are western countries. (Goff, Hill, Ferrer, 2022) This Eurocentricity requires that we reassert whether the Anthropocene narrative is one of global events and phenomena, or just ones occurring in western countries.

This video is a segmented portion of a larger Business Insider educational video providing a brief historical overview of how the dairy industry was formed and integrated into American society. (Business Insider, 2021)


Michael Bartz
Ashley Aldabute


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11. Paper Milk “Bottles.” (1929). Scientific American, 140(4), 332–333.

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13. Roberts Milk Bottle. (2022). photograph.

14. Smith-Howard, K. (2017). Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History since 1900. Oxford Univ. Press.

15. Tunick, M. (2009). Dairy Innovations over the Past 100 Years. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 57(18), 8093-8097.

16. Valenze, D. M. (2011). Milk: A Global History. Yale University Press.

17. Weimar, M. R., & Playney, D. P. (1994). Landmarks in the U.S. Dairy Industry. National Agricultural Library Digital Collections . Retrieved October 6, 2022, from

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19. Widmar, D. (2020, February 23). U.S. dairy consumption trends in 9 charts. Agricultural Economic Insights. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from

20. Wiley, A.S. (2011). Re-Imagining Milk: Cultural and Biological Perspectives. Routledge Press.


The Durham Museum Permanent Collection


Michael Bartz Ashley Aldabute, “Roberts Milk Bottle,” Omaha in the Anthropocene, accessed December 7, 2023,

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