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The Milkman’s Robot Helper

Could futuristic technology have saved the milkman from extinction?

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The milkman's robot helper of the future as imagined by illustrator Arthur Radebaugh (1961)

Remember milkmen? Yeah, neither do I.

In 2007, I moved into an apartment building in St. Paul that was built during the early 1920s. I remember asking the building manager what the small, two-foot tall doors attached to the outside of each apartment were for. The doors had long been painted shut and no longer opened to the inside of the apartments, as it looked like they should. The manager explained that the doors were used decades ago by milkmen who would make deliveries during the day while people were at work.

In the 1920s virtually all milk consumed in the United States was delivered directly to the home. By the early 1970s, it was only about 15%. By the 1990s, it was less than 1%. Whither the man of milk?

There were many things that contributed to the demise of the American milkman: the rise of electric home refrigerators meant that frequent delivery of fresh products were unnecessary; the emergence of the supermarket as a one-stop-shop meant it was just as convenient to buy milk at the store as having it delivered; and the increase in automobile ownership after WWII meant that getting to the supermarket was now easier than ever. But arguably, the most important factor was the suburbanization of America.

After World War II, many young families moved to the suburbs, which made it more difficult for milkmen to deliver milk efficiently. As the milkman’s customers spread out, he would need to spend more time driving his truck between deliveries, which increased his costs. As the milkman’s expenses increased he was forced to raise prices on his products, which caused families to just tack on milk (and other dairy products that the milkman delivered) to their supermarket grocery lists.

Perhaps a mechanical assistant would have simplified the task of delivering milk in the suburbs? The August 6, 1961 edition of Arthur Radebaugh‘s Sunday comic strip “Closer Than We Think” imagined the milkman of the future, with an automatic robot helper at his heels. This anachronism of the retrofuture, as it were, is referred to as an “electronic dobbin.” The word “dobbin” means a horse that’s used for physically demanding tasks and is used in the comic strip to draw comparisons to the milkmen of the past.

When yesterday’s milkman walked between houses, his horse would quietly keep pace with him on the street. The Dobbin of tomorrow’s milkman will follow along in the same way — thanks to electronics.

The devices that control today’s missiles — in far simpler form — will make it possible for the milkman to drive his truck from inside or out, wherever he happens to be. A small set of buttons will actuate the radio-tuned steering and movement of the vehicle. And maybe those buttons themselves will give way before long to the “unicontrol” being developed in Detroit — a single lever that controls speed, direction and braking alike — intended for passenger cars less than a decade away.

If you’d like to read more about the decline of the milkman I’d suggest finding a 1972 paper by Odis E. Bigus titled,  ”The Milkman and His Customer: A Cultivated Relationship,” which was originally published in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. If you’d like to read more about Arthur Radebaugh, I wrote a short piece about him for the April, 2012 issue of Smithsonian.

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