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Milk bottle collector shares his daily adventures

Created date

December 20th, 2011

Someone once told me that if you are going to collect something, make sure it s something you can afford, says Tom Ferguson, who lives at Ashby Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Ashburn, Va. My milk bottle collection began more than 15 years ago when I found an attractive bottle at an antique store for only $2. At the time, I had no idea what an adventure that one little purchase would take me on!

The journey begins

Over the next few years, Tom added to his collection, always making sure the bottles he buys are marked with the dairy name, city, and state. That way I can look up the dairy on the Internet and learn about where [the bottle] came from, he says. For me, this hobby is more than just collecting; it s learning about the dairy industry. Thanks to his diligent research, Tom discovered that milk bottles delivered more than milk. There are so many different types of bottles that some people chose to collect only a certain type, he says. Bottles manufactured during World War II include advertisements for war bonds. Other dairies marked their bottles with nursery rhymes, making them very appealing to mothers. There are even bottles marked with university emblems. Some of Tom s most prized possessions include an array of hand-blown milk bottles. They are very hard to come by, he says. These are the bottles that were used by dairies before the bottling machine was invented.

Expanding collection

When Tom and his wife, Julia, decided to move to Ashby Ponds, Tom carefully planned for the transportation and display of his collection. The couple decided to dedicate the second bedroom of their new home to the expanding collection. They had three built-in bookshelves designed for one of the walls, which now showcase not only milk bottles but other dairy-related items. Dairies used to give all sorts of stuff away, says Tom. It was a way for them to market their milk and stand apart from their competitors. These marketing items included combs, banks, baby bottles, toddler sippy cups, and milk bottle pull tabs. Every time I run across something new, I search the Internet for information, says Tom. The best part about this hobby is that I m never quite sure where it is going to take me. Most notably, Tom s passion led him to the study of the railroad transportation of milk, which lasted from 1842 until 1972. Beginning in the 1840s, refrigerated railcars transported milk and butter. This allowed dairy farmers to sell their milk outside their town. And because the railroads dramatically reduced the time it took to move dairy products to market, consumers enjoyed fresher, safer milk products. Its demise came as the result of the expanding interstate highway system, which allowed for a more efficient and safer way to bring milk from the farm to the table. Someone gave me a milk bottle from a railroad, says Tom. It was used to service milk in a railroad dining car. So once again I searched the Internet and was impressed by the great impact the railroad had on the dairy industry.

Shared passion

Five years after buying that first milk bottle, Tom and Julia joined the National Association of Milk Bottle Collectors (NAMBC). Each year they attend the annual convention in Grantville, Pa., trading both bottles and stories with fellow milk bottle collectors. Last year, for the first time, Tom decided to create a display for the convention, which he titledMoo Moo Choo Choo. The presentation won him the coveted educational award for its depiction of the transportation of milk and included a true-to-life model of a trackside creamery. It was a great experience, says Tom, who is already at work on his display for the 2012 convention. Tom s presentation, entitled Dear Mr. Milkman, will explore the letters and notes consumers (most often the lady of the house) left in their used milk cans. When the milkman picked up the empty bottles to refill, he would remove the personalized notes and many times respond. It s really remarkable the journey that first little milk bottle has taken me on, says Tom. Recently, my grandson started collecting milk bottle caps. Because most caps are marked with the city and state of the dairy, he is having a great time looking the dairies up on a map. And even with a room full of sought-after milk bottles and other dairy-related items, Tom admits his collection is not yet complete. Now, if I see a bottle that really catches my eye, I buy it, he says. That s what being a collector is all about. Who knows where else this hobby will take me.