The Rise and Fall of the Milk Bar
In the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, an eerie synthesized melody reverberates as the camera slowly pans away as the main character Alex DeLarge (played by Malcom McDowell) stares deep into camera lens, holding a glass of milk. They are inside the Korova Milk Bar, a cross between bad acid trip and a pub, where psychedelic noir adds an acrid taste to a beverage we’ve all come to associate with childhood. Sipping milk from tall glasses, dispensed from the statues of naked women, DeLarge explains that “the Korova Milkbar sold milk plus,” adding that meant “milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom, which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultraviolence.”
Ask anyone in New York what’s a “milk bar” and you’ll probably get a description of Christina Tosi’s upscale dessert shop. But before cereal milk ice cream and crack pie cookies caught hold, what “milk bar” referred to was not too far off from the Clockwork Orange version (although it was not where malevolent teens would go to get hopped up and go off beating to death drunkards on the street). Rather, the milk bar often referred to a venue where proprietors sold milkshakes, which at the time often were comprised of simply milk, ice, and flavoring additives (fruit, chocolate, etc.), shaken till frothy and served in tall glasses. (It should be noted though that in Poland, there was also a type of venue called a bar mleczny, literally “milk bar,” which was essentially a cafeteria establishment subsidized by the government that offered cheap, often dairy-based, meals).
The history of the milk bar is not without conflicting claims. The first establishment calling itself a “milk bar” was the Lakeview Milk Bar in Bangalore, India, founded by James Meadow Charles in 1930. In its beginnings, the Lakeview Milkbar focused on selling dairy products, mainly ice cream to its customers. Today, under new ownership, it sells milkshakes, cakes, and pizza.
But according to the Oxford Companion to Food, the first milk bar that specialized in selling milkshakes was established in Australia in 1932. Leonard Janiszewski and Effy Alexakis, professors of history and documentary photography at Macquire University, have documented the history of the milk bar in Australia in their recent book Greek Cafes and Milk Bars of Australia. The concept of what some may describe as the modern “American-style” milk bar was conceived by Greek immigrant Joachim Tavlarides, better known by his alias Mick Adams. During a trip to the United States, Adams saw abroad that while soda parlors focused on serving customers carbonated beverages, they also sold milkshakes, made with the Hamilton Beach Drink Mixer. Adams brought this technology back to Australia and established his first milk bar, Black and White 4d. Milk Bar in Sydney's Martin Place in 1932.
“The milkshake represented the modern world: the leading western white culture, the United States,” Janiszewski explained. “Greeks couldn't travel. We were not as materially affluent as the US, so [Adams] created this milk bar.” He explained that to enhance the sense of modernity, Black and White featured an Art Deco style akin to the Soda parlor in the States, along with staff members in black-and-white uniform. The difference between the soda parlor and the milk bar, however, predominantly was the main focus of the shop: In the States, soda parlors sold milkshakes, but the emphasis was on the soda, while in Australia, milk bars focused on selling milkshakes although there was the option of ordering sodas. Within the first day, Adams sold 5000 milkshakes out of Black and White; between 1932 and 1937, over 4,000 milk bars had open around Australia. The historian continued that this establishment soon spread to the United Kingdom and beyond.
According to Janiszewski, the success of the milk bar largely is largely due to a perfect storm of social movements and legislation. In Australia, Adams sold his milk bars’ product partially on the claim that the was beverage “health drink,” which was promoted by health and milk boards (such as the National Milk Board). Furthermore, during the financially difficult periods surrounding the Great War, socializing over a milkshake cost one much less than a pint of beer (the 4d. in Black and White referred to the price of a milkshake: “four pence”). And on the supply side, food caterers in Australia, taking notice of the success of Adams’ milk bar ventures, adopted a similar business model.
But in both Australia and the United Kingdom, the milk bar proved an important facet in the development of youth culture. Adrian Horn, author of the book Juke Box Britain: Americanisation and Youth Culture, 1945-1960, understands milk bars as integral for British teens. “They were widespread and were places young kids could go,” Horn explained about milk bars, where they could hang out by the jukeboxes playing the latest pop hits. “Kids congregated in these establishments.”
In the latter half of the twentieth, the milk bar, at least in Australia, adapted from a place to serve milkshakes to a corner store, and now is slowly fading into extinction. Eamon Donnelly, an Australian archivist and founder of the Milk Bars Project, an archiving of the history of Australia’s milk bars, explained that across his home nation, this is the result of a domino effect linked to modernization and changing consumer habits. With time, milk bars began to offer goods typically associated with grocery stores, while, according to Donnelly, the corner shops began to adopt the milkshake and therefore the title “milk bar;” from both ends, the milk bar essentially became a term to refer to a corner shop, akin to a deli or a bodega. However, the influx of flavored milk in the ‘70s largely killed off much the demand for fresh milkshakes at milk bars; meanwhile, around the turns of the ‘80s, the growth of power among fast food chains, supermarkets, and 24-hour convenience stores, which could offer products like bread, newspapers, cigarettes and ice creams that locals would purchase at milk bars, ran many of the family-run establishments out of business.
“There were visits to my corner Milk Bar, owned by Dave and Peggy, we simply called it ‘Dave’s,’” Donnelly said recalling childhood memories. He added that, on a return trip home as an adult, he discovered that ‘Dave’s’ had long closed sometime in the late 1990s, and only a rusted old tin sign for The Sun newspaper remained.”
So, thanks to flavored milk and capitalism, it might just be that, like the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange, soon the only place you’ll see a real milk bar is on film.