The School Milk Carton We All Know and Love

Remember heading to the school cafeteria at lunchtime? Even if you brought a packed lunch, your mom sent you with milk money so you could grab a carton of fresh milk (though you sometimes saved up to sneak an ice cream instead).  

Drinking from a school milk carton is a shared childhood memory that sends us to the refrigerator every time we remember it. We become sentimental whenever that small carton of milk appears in a packed lunch or restaurant cooler. But how did that memory-creating school milk carton come to be? 

The inventor of the milk carton and inspiration for the smaller school milk carton is disputed. First, there was G. W. Maxwell, who had cartons built by hand before coating them in paraffin wax to make the cartons waterproof. There were some flaws that prevented a quick adoption of the paper packaging. Mainly, the milk cartons were fully assembled. Already formed cartons caused storage difficulties, requiring more shipping expenses. (Think how much space an assembled box takes up compared to one that is broken down.) 

This inspired the other milk carton inventor, John R. Van Wormer, who sought to design a milk carton that dairy workers could unfold, glue and package as needed. Van Wormer received a patent for his milk carton for one-time use, which he called “Pure-Pak,” in 1915. Unlike Maxwell, he developed machinery that could quickly manufacture the cartons, giving cartons a chance to be a popular packaging option.  

The gable-top carton with a spout released by a well-practiced pinch became an efficient, lightweight packaging when compared to the reused, heavy glass bottles then in use. Though a polyethylene coating later replaced the paraffin wax, the carton needed no major improvements. But, like today, Americans were attached to drinking milk from bottles. It was the steady increase in the cost of glass over time that made companies switch to paperboard cartons by the 1950s. 

Dairy in Schools

A small, single-serve version of milk in this cost-effective packaging is a common sight in school cafeterias, but how students enjoy their milk is changing. Some schools serve milk in single-serve plastic bottles for younger students that struggle to open a carton on their own. Others have introduced a more environmentally friendly system where milk is stored in dispensers for students to pour as much milk as they want into reusable cups, cutting back on the packaging trashed and encouraging students to drink more milk at mealtimes. Even the classic school milk carton has become more sustainable, with paperboard materials comprising more and more of recycled materials. 

Regardless of how you enjoyed it, those gulps of milk during your school day break are a childhood memory you’ll never forget.  

Raise a glass to the school milk carton we all know and love.

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