Originally the concept of the milk bar in America was also a spin-off from the ever-popular apotheke-style pharmacists who dispensed medicines and often refreshing milk-infused tinctures to waiting customers. The customers often milled around or sat on bar stools at a long galley-style counter top.
Originally, the pharmacists mixed the medicine with their backs turned to their customers. This style of serving was less personal, however the revolution came once the set up was changed so that the pharmacists faced the customers. This was when the whole social dynamic of the milk bar swung into high gear. Suddenly there was room for idle chit-chat and the social concept of the first milk bars was born.
Eventually milk bars in America in the early 20th Century became inspired by the otherworldly glamour of classic Hollywood. They incorporated escapism into the decor and customer experience. Milk bars were full of gleaming chrome, neon and plush leather chairs. They were places where hard-working people could go, forget about their worries and be treated like kings and queens. The main draw card was friendly customer service, which was paramount, but also the sensual delights of food and drink were a scintillating bonus.
A place of escapism and surreal, otherworldly glamour
Unlike the pub, milk bars weren’t restrictive for age (and in early times, gender) and regular customers could range from children to elderly people.
Australian milk bars were first conceived in the US, they were imported to Australia during the early 20th Century by business-savvy Greek and Italian migrants who translated the concept successfully to Australia. They did this through letter writing with other members of their families living in the US. These relatives of the Greek diaspora extolled some brilliant business advice – forget about working in a trade, set up a milk bar and rake in the big bucks!
Milk bars were set up all along the eastern sea board in Australia, often following along popular rail routes and in rail towns. Each family would set up a milk bar in each successive town so they didn’t compete with each other. The business was often passed down from father to son. Along with the local pub in small towns, the milk bar was a nexus of social interaction in an otherwise pretty quiet place.
Milk bars mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. However originally in the 1940s-70’s they were a social hub. A place where young lovers found each other for the first time, quarrelled, brought their kids for a weekend dinner and a place for old couples to go well into their dottage.
The milk bar (and in New Zealand known as the Dairy) had a solid and central place in communities. It was a place to escape from work and catch up on the gossip.
My personal memories of the milk bar
For me, the milk bar was a place for me to salivate over and pine for $1 mixed bags of lollies. (or as they would call it in America -candies or in the UK – sweeties). There was fountains of sherbet which could be piped into a bag with a small trowel and of course ice-cream spiders (the intoxicating combination of fizzy drinks and ice-cream, this may have a different name in other countries).
I was obsessed with lollies at the age of 7 because up until then, I was only allowed cheese sticks and raisins as a snack between meals! Once I was taken to the milk bar with a friend’s parents it was all over then, I knew what I was missing and would move mountains to get back there, by any means necessary.
The milk bar was a place where you could become entrenched within the family dynamics of the milk bar owners who would often talk loudly or argue in an exotic tongue for all of the visiting customers to hear and see. It was part of the spectacle. As a child, this cultural element seemed exotic and fascinating in itself.
The best milk bars had a vast variety of ice-cream spiders but the most daring and outlandish combinations were looked on most favourably – a lime spider or a blue heaven spider were the pinnacle of childhood pleasure.
For me, this was a place to blow all of my meagre and hard-earned pocket money each week. Each visit was a way to throw away the spoils of doing boring housework with my mum (the work always done in a half-assed way, so she would look on at my work with dissapointment).
My grandparents would take me to the milk bar in Altona and buy me and my brother hubba-bubba and we’d chew all six pieces at once in our mouths and then combine them together, stick them into the central glove compartment in the back seat of the car so that it could dry like fluorescent pink concrete. We were shamefully naughty. If I could find a soundtrack song to go with the Australian milk bar this would be it.
The sad post-script
Sadly, as a post-script, milk bar business has slowed down significantly in recent decades. Fuelled primarily by the rise and rise of convenience stores like 7-11 and Quix, service station conveniences, large shopping centres with everything under one roof and internet shopping. Many milk bars have now closed their doors. Here’s some internet evidence of that, found on some godforesaken Chinese real estate website.
How the ethos of milk bars was hijacked
The whole ethos of milk bars: 1. Customer comes first. 2. fast, cheap and yet luxurious food. 3. A place of pure escapism. has been hijacked by that malignant cancer of the modern world – fast food retailers like KFC, McDonalds and Burger King.
Although when a personalised and genuine way of doing business and building relationships is replaced by a faceless corporate behemoth, then eventually the chickens come home to roost. That system is broken. The reason why is that people can see that it lacks substance and soul. Also the food is shit.
Some people have prematurely announced the death of the Australian milk bar in recent decades. Although I like to think of this as another step in their evolution. Many milk bar stalwarts in Melbourne and Sydney have adapted themselves and become more modernised versions of their former identities.
By incorporating kitsch signage and decor, charming interiors and hipsterising the menu to some degree (a sprinkling of kale here, a brioche bun there, removing some deep fried goodies over there) they have not just survived – these white whales of the milk bar world have thrived.
But modern day hipsters can’t let the milk bar die
The whole ethos of hipsterism is predicated upon seeking out and nurturing what is historically special and real. Hipsterism and hipster eating has an almost violent dedication to what is genuine.
Hipsters and 80’s kids everywhere (they are not the same thing) demand that places like milk bars still exist in our modern world. If you are worried about them, then go out and find a milk bar and buy a damn souvlaki and ice-cream spider, do it now!
I wrote this story with the aid of this brilliant and scintillating podcast on Richard Fidler’s Conversations which brought to life the legend of the Australian milk bar in roaring technicolour.
If an Australian milk bar had a soundtrack then this could be it. Cold Chisel’s Forever Now. A song about contemplation and chilling out in a diner/milk bar, waiting for someone or just thinking.