Anybody under the age of, say, twenty five, might be unaware of the milkman. They may only know them, at best, from old TV shows or as passing references made by their elders. The chances are that the under twenty fives will have never even seen a milkman in the wild. All they’ve ever known is milk from a plastic carton, emblazoned with the logo of whichever supermarket it happens to have been bought from. They won’t have known of glass milk bottles, which I have to say were much more environmentally friendly than the plastic ones because they could be reused, and they won’t know about milk floats, those ridiculously slow, elongated golf buggy type things which the mythical milkman used to pootle around in. Is this a shame? It depends on your point of view.
The concept, looking back all these years after their virtual extinction (apparently a few milkmen still exist) is one that now sounds fundamentally absurd. Just try explaining what a milkman was… He was someone who drove around the streets in the early hours of the morning, in a stupidly slow vehicle, and left milk on people’s doorsteps. Once that milk was done you’d leave the empty bottle out and he’d take it away the next morning, giving you a fresh bottle in return. Even before we add the stereotype that he sired every child in the neighbourhood, he already sounds like some sort of Tooth Fairy or Father Christmas figure. In an age where milk can be bought at the drop of a hat it is difficult to imagine how this was a completely normal thing twenty five years ago. Nobody questioned it.
The day of the milkman ended and the gene pool was allowed to diversify once again, though his has been far from the only profession that has faded into obscurity. Take the ice cream man… Yeah, alright, they still exist in some places but the hot summer days when they’d be everywhere, driving around and plying for trade, and when you’d hear the soft chimes of Men of Harlech coming around the corner are long gone. The ice cream man no longer drives the suburbs. He sticks to one place, usually the seaside, and even that iteration may fade soon enough. His old variation, however, is already beginning to become absurd- A man who prowls the summer streets in a big van, playing tinkling music and luring children to him with the promise of ice cream. It almost makes him reminiscent of the Pied Piper, or the Child Catcher (who did tempt children with ice cream, actually.)
Go back through time and you’ll gradually come across more and more long gone professions. The rag and bone man has gone completely, although if you leave your freezer out on your front drive some chancer will still come and take it away for you. What they might do with it afterwards, likely strip it down to the valuable stuff and sell those for cash, is another matter but they will still take it off your hands. It also stops them from stealing the lead from church roofs I suppose. But the traditional rag and bone man, the one who’d go up and down the streets calling out for your old pots, pans and bits of scrap has trundled off for the last time. You can say the same about the knocker-upper, long given the chop by the alarm clock, the lamplighter done in by electricity, the town crier murdered by the newspaper industry. If you see them these days it’s only as a quirky, old-time throwback or as something in a period drama.
It happens and there’s little we can do to stop it. History marches on, technology progresses and unfortunately that means that sometimes jobs and professions go by the wayside. Admittedly our two examples were not made extinct by the advent of technology, unlike the lamplighter, but by changes in society. More cautious parenting means that children are no longer permitted to roam the streets as they once did, let alone buy ice cream from strangers in musical vans. The expansion of the supermarkets into selling almost everything under the sun for as low a price as possible, including milk from their own branded dairies, was what did the milkman in. Supermarket milk was cheaper and you could get it when you wanted. If you ran out you could always go and buy more instead of waiting till tomorrow morning. You didn’t have to leave them a note saying not to deliver for the next week because you were on holiday either. Life was made more convenient and millions of milkmen trundled off to the job centre in their empty milk floats.
It isn’t just the professions that have died, however, but a whole body of urban legends and jokes and ridiculous stereotypes as well. To return to the milkman doing your mum, the pastiche was well trodden- So was your mum after the milkman had done with her. It was a joke that probably got up the nose of most milkmen but it was omnipresent in comedy. Most memorably it was covered in the Father Ted episode, Speed 3, in which local milkman Pat Mustard has fathered a helluva lot of similar looking babies and all the women get the shock of their lives when they open the door, naked, and find out that Dougal has replaced him. Monty Python also managed to subvert the idea by having a milkman lured upstairs by an attractive woman, only to find himself imprisoned with about five others. Nowadays the joke just doesn’t make sense, unless you do it in a ‘where the hell did your mum find a milkman?’ sort of way.
The stereotype of the ice cream man was different. It was a lot more sinister and as such there were far less jokes made about it. It stems from what I say above, about them seeming like a kind of pied piper or Child Catcher type figure. Unfairly, they did get that reputation even though any actual incidents were rare, at least to my knowledge. It is well known that serial killer Fred West once worked as an ice cream man, but this has almost nothing to do with his killing spree, although he did once run over a child. The other stereotype was that it wasn’t just ice cream they were selling, it was other stuff. The chimes of Men of Harlech were sometimes used not to signify to the local children that ice cream was on the way, but to signify to the addicts that the Smack wagon was approaching. Most ice cream vans obviously weren’t selling drugs, but it was a rumour that persisted, moreso in the US than in Britain. This was more than just a stereotype however. In the 80’s gangs in Glasgow actually used ice cream vans as a front to sell drugs and stolen goods. It may be that the reputation of Mr Whippy is more deserved than that of the milkman, but in most cases it was still a stereotype.
The stereotype of the milkman has long since faded whilst that of the ice cream man, as the ice cream man is not quite dead yet, is soon set to join them. Every profession comes with some kind of stereotype (Movie Moguls snort crack, for example) but when that profession becomes extinct it is likely that the stereotypes will fade with it. Any old jokes will become completely impenetrable. Any teenager watching Father Ted’s Speed 3 today, for instance, will likely think half of the jokes are some weird Craggy Island thing and not a pastiche of real life. It will be less funny as a result.
The demise of the milkman, in regards to the history of the world, has, overall, not been catastrophic. It was a profession that, like so many before, has died out due to societal changes. Unlike some professions, say like the town crier or the lamplighter, people aren’t going to get nostalgic over him. There’s not going to be some romanticisation of him, some twee fantasy where he was a part of some golden age. His demise will, alas, barely scratch the surface of history. When the story our age comes to be written down the death of the milkman may not even make it to the footnotes. Historians won’t even mention it in passing. He shall only be remembered as a baffling quirk in old comedy shows and, perhaps, by your mum.