Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

Milk Bar a 20th-century outlet for milk and light refreshment. The similarity of milk bars and their principal products (the milk shake and the ice-cream sundae) to the US soda fountain might lead us to ignore their independent origin. The soda fountain had indeed travelled beyond its home country. By 1918 there was a soda fountain journal published for a British readership and fountains were being made by British manufacturers for installation in cafés, restaurants, and department stores. The milk bar, however, seems first to have appeared in Australia. Michael Symons (1982) explains the tremendous effort put into the marketing of Australian agricultural produce in the 1920s, including fruit juice (with the opening of many juice bars) and milk. This coincided with Greek immigrants entering the catering business (some inspired by their cousins in the USA) with cafés and soda fountains as well as the first milk bar in Sydney in 1932. In Australia, these milk bars converted to delicatessens and convenience stores when faced with the intrusion of American fast food in the 1950s. In Britain, milk was also subject to official boosterism. The Milk Marketing Board was established in 1933 as a leg-up to a stuttering agricultural sector. The climate was favourable for the first milk bar opened in the same year in Colwyn Bay, N. Wales, by a farmer, R. W. Griffiths, anxious to sell his milk direct to the public. He went on to open a small chain of National Milk Bars in Wales and NW England. In London, meanwhile, the first bar was opened in Fleet Street in 1934 by an Australian, Hugh McIntosh, under the name of Black & White (which was indeed the name of a Sydney milk bar). Evelyn Waugh once wrote of his hero William Boot’s cable from war-torn Ishmaelia as a ‘legend … told and retold over the milk-bars of Fleet Street’ (Scoop, 1938). McIntosh’s idea was quickly adopted, particularly by the Forte family who already operated teashops and ice-cream parlours in S. England, and milk bars were everywhere to be found offering soft drinks, sodas, milk shakes, and light refreshments (toasted sandwiches, for example). By 1939 there were more than 1,000 and their growth continued after 1945, only to be stopped by the spread of the espresso coffee machine and the coffee bar in the mid-1950s. Much like the American drugstore, they attracted those too young for licensed premises who were also drawn to the inevitable jukebox and Americanized decorative scheme. Milk bars were not entirely restricted to the anglophone world for they could be found in urban Holland as well as in modern indonesia.