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Dairy Industry and Tokens

By Paul S. Berry et Kitrina Bevan, Banque du Canada | Sunday, June 1, 2008

Excerpt from Ottawa Dairy Tokens - An Overview of the Dairy Tokens of Ottawa and Their Issuers by Paul S. Berry et Kitrina Bevan for the Bank of Canada in 2008.


The Canadian dairy industry is a multi-billion-dollar business in which most Canadians are involved-if not as producers or distributors, then as consumers of its wide range of products.1 It is also an industry with a tangible numismatic legacy in the form of tokens and tickets that were once used by customers to purchase dairy products. From the late nineteenth century through the 1960s and 1970s, dairy distributors across the country issued a wide array of paper, plastic, and metal tokens as monetary substitutes for advertising purposes and for customer convenience. These objects, with their varied colours and unusual shapes, represent a fascinating and charming testament to the days of home delivery.

In the Beginning

The story begins with the animals that produce the raw material on which the industry is based.2 In Canada today, there are Holstein, Jersey, Ayrshire, Canadienne, Brown Swiss, and Guernsey cows, among others. They generate enormous quantities of milk, between 18,000 and 28,000 pounds of milk per cow, per annum.3

Although recognized principally as a beverage, milk has properties that allow it to be converted into other food sources such as butter and cheese. This versatility prompted our ancestors to keep dairy cattle in small numbers to serve family needs. With the expansion of urban centres in the late nineteenth century, it was no longer practical, or sanitary, for everyone to keep cows. As a result, Canadian farmers raised large herds to serve the needs of those without facilities of their own. The first such concentration of large herds was in southwestern and southeastern Ontario (Oxford County and Lennox & Addington County) and in Quebec's Eastern Townships.

Production and Distribution

Surplus milk-what was not required for the farmer's table-was delivered to cheese factories, to be made into cheese; to creameries, where it was made into butter; or to the customer's home, as a beverage or for culinary use.

Canada's first dairy farmers operated without government regulation and with minimal professional direction. No operational standards existed for either production or delivery. The first dairy organizations were established in the 1870s. Dairy schools did not exist in Canada until the late nineteenth century, and Canada's first dairy commissioner was appointed in 1890.

Early milk production and distribution were basic. Milk taken from the cow early each morning was transferred to containers of various types and sizes and loaded onto wagons for transport. In home deliveries, milk was dispensed directly from large metal cans or earthenware jugs into the receptacle provided by the customer. This method was called "dipping," and while it was an economical way of dispensing milk, it also represented a considerable health risk for consumers, since milk exposed to the air is an ideal breeding ground for disease-causing bacteria. Epidemics of scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles, typhoid, and tuberculosis were all attributed to a supply of impure milk in the 1860s.4 Moreover, there were no guarantees that the milk was pure. Some "industrious" producers sought to increase their profits by separating a portion of the cream from the milk and adding water and chalk to cover the telltale bluish tinge of watered-down milk.

Eventually, public concern over the quality and safety of milk led to steps to regulate the industry. As early as 1870, the Quebec government made it illegal to supply watered-down, sour, or dirty milk to dairy factories.5 Authorities demanded mandatory inspection of dairy herds to ensure that cows were not contaminated with bovine tuberculosis. Some municipalities even demanded that milk be pasteurized6 to reduce harmful bacteria. In 1906, the Guaranteed Pure Milk Company of Montreal was the first Canadian dairy to pasteurize its milk.

With the demand for milk increasing to the extent that it could not be handled by a single individual or even a family or extended-family operation, modern companies, using new technologies, were organized at the beginning of the twentieth century to take delivery of milk from farmer producers, process the milk, package it, and deliver it along longer routes, at times overlapping those of competing interests. In some instances, the distributors themselves operated a dairy farm to ensure a steady supply. Three of the earliest modern distributors were located in central Canada: the Guaranteed Pure Milk Company of Montreal, the Ottawa Dairy in Ottawa, and the City Dairy in Toronto.

The diverse nature of those involved in the dairy industry led to the development of associations for producers and distributors, whose mandate was to help educate members and protect their interests in negotiations of wholesale prices. Gradually, costly industry regulation, modernization of equipment, and improvements in transportation resulted in consolidation among distributors7 and a subsequent decline in producers. After World War II, large grocery-store chains offered customers convenient and direct access to milk products. Since more of them could be delivered to the store than to the home, there were considerable savings for the distributor.8 This resulted in a decline in home delivery by the 1970s and, ultimately, the disappearance of the dairy token in all but a few specialized markets.

The Tokens

The issue of dairy tokens, or tokens generally, was not an isolated phenomenon. It became a regular feature of retail business in North America at the end of the nineteenth century and for decades after. General stores, bakers, barbers, hoteliers, transportation companies, and other Canadian businesses distributed tokens in values of cents, dollars, or units particular to the issuer, such as loaves of bread for bakers and pints and quarts of milk for dairies. These pieces were useful for the merchant in that they were a form of inexpensive advertising, they gave the merchant money in advance of providing the goods or service, they saved the merchant from using cash to make change or small purchases, and they ensured customer loyalty: unlike cash, tokens could be redeemed only at the establishment of the issuing merchant.

In their heyday, milkmen sold tokens or tickets directly to their customers. Dairies encouraged such sales by offering discounts of one bottle for every twelve purchased. Tokens were put out with the empties on the step or in service boxes and collected by the milkman in exchange for products.

The earliest known Canadian dairy tokens were issued in the 1890s. Period catalogues (Paquet 1893-94;9 Breton 1894)10 list several. Some of these pieces, however, were fantasies-not intended for use in milk delivery-created before the turn of the twentieth century, but exclusively for sale to eager collectors.11

Not every dairy issued tokens or tickets. Some preferred to extend credit to customers and settle accounts on a regular basis. For those firms that did issue tokens, however, these instruments had advantages: they eliminated the risk and inconvenience of using cash. Drivers were not put in jeopardy, and customers did not have to look for exact change. Using tokens helped to ensure that bottles were not destroyed but returned to the proper company, saving thousands of dollars each year. Unlike cash, tickets were useless to early-morning thieves who took advantage of money left in bottles. A token's physical nature also benefited the deliveryman. Some tokens were shaped so that they stood upright in the necks of the empties, and their colour alerted the driver to the type and quantity of milk desired before he even reached the customer's door.

Manufacturers such as Pritchard and Andrews (P&A) of Ottawa and Banfield and Sons of Toronto struck tokens in a variety of base metals, including copper and brass, as well as aluminum, which was made affordable in the early 1890s, thanks to Charles Hall's innovative refining process. Due to its light weight and anti-tarnish properties, aluminum quickly dominated the field.

Paper was also used. Early on, tickets were produced individually, like metal tokens, and made of thick cardboard that could be reused because it offered a degree of durability. By World War I, paper tickets appeared more frequently in perforated strips or sheets from which individual tickets could be removed to be placed inside the empty bottle to pay for a new one. These tickets, unlike metal tokens, were produced locally and were not reusable. Beyond the basic value of the tokens, the tickets featured the merchant's name, address, and phone number. Statements about the nutritional value of milk and its proper handling were also included. Some even bore illustrations and instructions on how the tickets were to be used.

Before World War II, most tokens were made out of aluminum, and colour appeared only on paper tickets. With the development of commercially feasible plastics, colour made its way into the production of milk tokens. In the 1940s, dairies in western Canada began to make their tokens from plastic, with colours ranging from black or white to yellow, blue, green, or red. Most of these pieces were made in the United States and were opaque. Few dairies in eastern Canada adopted plastic.

Anodized aluminum was the preferred material in postwar eastern Canada. Anodization gives the surface of aluminum a hard, colourful, metallic sheen. This is not a surface finish but part of the aluminum itself, created by subjecting the bare, white metal to a chemical bath through which an electric current is passed. Adding dyes to the bath creates colours. There would appear to be no limit to the varieties of tone and sheen that are possible. Anodized aluminum was popularized in the early 1950s through its use in household wares such as tumblers, pitchers, and cooking utensils.12

Dairy tokens exist in an abundance of shapes. Some early favourites were round or octagonal. Other shapes were available but were more expensive to produce; oval pieces cost on average 25 per cent more than round tokens. During the 1940s and 1950s, more novel shapes were introduced, including hearts, triangles, crosses, tulips, mushrooms, notched squares, teardrops, arrows, inverted triangles, and T-shaped pieces. Tokens shaped like a bull's head, a cow's head, and a milk can were evocative of the cattle industry.

Dairy tokens were typically denominated in units of milk or cream. The most common values were one pint and one quart, ideal for household use. The largest value was six gallons, representing a large milk can and probably distributed to hotels, restaurants, and bakeries, which required large quantities. Imperial measures, such as pints and quarts, were used until Canada adopted the metric system in the late 1970s.

Almost every type of fluid milk has been represented on dairy tokens. The first tokens simply said "Milk." The type of milk was seldom mentioned. Instead, it seemed more important to the early distributor to assure customers that the product was unadulterated by any additives and that it came straight from a cow that had been tested by the government and found to be disease-free. Milk was often characterized as "pure," "fresh," or "tuberculin" tested. Later descriptors included "raw" (unpasteurized) milk, "pasteurized" milk, "homogenized"13 milk, and "standard" milk (pasteurized but not homogenized). There are also references to lower amounts of butterfat, such as "2%," "1%," and "skim" milk. Some distributors even considered it beneficial from a marketing standpoint to identify the breed of dairy cow that had produced the milk. The words "Jersey," "Guernsey," and "Holstein" appear on tokens, sometimes with adjectives such as "gold," referring to the yellowish colour of Guernsey milk.

Tokens also record the changing nature of the Canadian milk container, with legends that read "bottle," "jug," or "pouch pack." The glass bottle was the first container used regularly in Canada for the delivery of milk. It not only made distribution easier but limited milk's exposure to harmful bacteria. The first Canadian patent for a milk bottle was issued in 1881 to two Toronto brothers, John and Joseph Birney.14 The patent was for basic round bottles made from clear glass. Around 1892, J. J. Joubert Limitee, a Montreal dairy, was the first in the British Empire to deliver milk in a glass bottle with a pasteboard cap.15 The weight of glass bottles and their expense, owing to potential breakage, led to new developments in packaging. The first dairy to sell milk in paper cartons in Canada was Sani-Seal Dairies in 1937.16 In the 1940s, the round glass bottles in the shape of a bowling pin began to disappear in favour of more easily transportable square bottles. 17 Technology for the reusable plastic milk jug began to appear in Canada in the late 1950s. By 1983, the returnable and reusable three-quart milk jug disappeared as the metrification of milk containers required four-litre packaging to take its place. Today, plastic sealed bags are among the most popular forms of milk packaging in Eastern Canada. Approximately 50 per cent of milk currently sold to consumers in Canada is packaged in plastic pouches.18

  1. 1 In 2006, for example, sales of dairy products amounted to over $13 billion of the more than $77 billion in total food and beverage sales. (Statistics Canada).
  2. 2 Goat milk forms a small part of the dairy industry in Canada, but since tokens were not used in its delivery, that sector of the industry is not included here.
  3. 3 Wikipedia, "Dairy cattle."
  4. 4 J. Spargo, The Common Sense of the Milk Question, New York, The MacMillan Company, 1908, 120-122.
  5. 5 R. Dupre, "Regulating the Quebec Dairy Industry, 1905-1921: Peeling off the Joseph Label", The Journal of Economic History 50 (2) June 1190, 346.
  6. 6 Pasteurization reduces the number of harmful bacteria that can be found in milk, such as bovine tuberculosis (TB), E. coli, and salmonella. Pasteurized milk stays fresher longer than raw milk and is much safer to drink.
  7. 7 Loc. cit.
  8. 8 Ottawa Milk Pricing, November, 1961, (Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1964), 7-8.
  9. 9 F. X. Paquet, Catalogue and Price List of Medals, Checks and Communion Tokens of the Ottawa District (Ottawa: 1893), privately published.
  10. 10 P. N. Breton, Histoire illustree des monnaies et jetons du Canada, Montreal, P. N. Breton & Co. (1894).
  11. 11 R. W. McLachlan, "Canadian Coins and Medals Issued in 1892", Canadian Antiquarian and Numismatic Journal 3, 2nd Series (1893): 56.
  12. 12 S. Nichols, Aluminum by Design (Pittsburgh, Penn.: Carnegie Museum of Art, 2000), 149-5.2
  13. 13 Homogenization prevents a layer of cream from separating out of the milk. The milk is pumped at high pressures through very narrow tubes, breaking up the fat globules and blending them with the milk. This new product was often marketed on dairy tokens.
  14. 14 D. Thomas et B. Marchant, When Milk Came in Bottles: A History of Toronto Dairies(Port Hope, Ontario, 1997), 3.
  15. 15 V. McCormick, A Hundred Years in the Dairy Industry: A History of the Dairy Industry in Canada and the Events That Influenced It, 1867-1967 (Ottawa: Dairy Farmers of Canada, 1968), 16.
  16. 16 D. Thomas et B. Marchant, When Milk Came in Bottles: A History of Toronto Dairies(Port Hope, Ontario, 1997), 124.
  17. 17 D. J. Unitt et P. Unitt, Bottles in Canada, (Peterborough, Ontario: Clock House, 1972), 199.
  18. 18 Enviros Consulting Limited, "International Waste Prevention and Reduction Practice: Final Report", Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (United Kingdom), (October 2004), 20.
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