A tall order for the humble milk crate amuses its inventor
The inventor of the modern milk crate would like to thank Sydney’s art world – you’ve given him a good laugh this past week.
“I was just a young fellow who had bright ideas,” says Geoff Milton, the 89-year-old Glenhaven man whose keen engineering skills gave us the milk crate we know, love and occasionally sit on today.
Milton was part of a team at Dairy Farmers Cooperative Milk Company, which, in the 1950s and ‘60s, worked on a series of crates for transporting cartons and bottles that would evolve into the now ubiquitous perforated plastic cube.
He says he has been “laughing his head off” at the furore over the City of Sydney’s plans to build a 13.7-metre-high milk crate sculpture in Belmore Park. “I don’t see the artistic merit even now,” Milton says. “It was purely utilitarian.”
As for Melbourne artist Jarrad Kennedy’s claims that Hany Armanious’ Pavilion sculpture is a copy of his own giant-crate-in-a-park work, Court, from 2005, Milton echoes what many commenters and social media snarks have pointed out since the story broke: if anyone should be suing, it’s the guy who designed the original container.
“If anyone has the artistic right to the crate, I have, or my company, Dairy Farmers,” he says.
Milton, who lives in a Glenhaven retirement village with his wife Mary, is a spry 89 – when Fairfax Media called him late last week he had been digging in the garden and apologised for the delay getting to phone: “At my age it’s a bit tough getting off your knees.”
And his memory is sharp. Over the phone, and in a follow-up 750-word essay entitled Short History of Milk Crates in NSW, Milton explained how he dreamed up the design of the milk crate.
It began with a perfect storm in the milk-delivery industry: the disappearance of the 1940s “Milko” who delivered milk into your billy can on a horse-drawn cart, a rise in consumer demand for sealed containers and the installation of new, fast-moving machinery at the factory end.
Dairy Farmers replaced wooden crates with wire mesh crates to better work with those machines but the crates would bend and get stuck in the production line. “It became obvious to me that a better crate was essential,” says Milton, and so Dairy Farmers reached out to plastics moulding company Nally. Together they designed a plastic crate for rounded “Perga” paper cartons.
Milton found further inspiration on a 1962 study tour of Europe and came back with an idea for a plastic crate for one-pint bottles; again he worked with Nally. The new crates maintained their shape, which was essential as the company moved into mechanical stacking and transport. “I like to think that all this must have saved hundreds of strained arms and backs,” he says.
The current crate we see came from public demand for milk in cartons in the late ’60s; these cartons fitted neatly together in square boxes. “The first of these was a four-sided box with a few stiffening ribs,” he says. But the crate – solid on the sides – proved too popular. “People were using them to store toys and potatoes, fair dinkum,” Milton ays. “Our crate losses were not insignificant.”
The team designed a new mould die for a crate with gaps on the sides – just large enough for potatoes to slip through.
Milton is not interested in money or even recognition – he says he doesn’t want to “blow his own trumpet”. But he has been tickled by the idea that something so utilitarian is being hailed as art.
He is also tickled by the idea that one day his three great-grandchildren will walk through an oversized version of his humble creation in the centre of town. But he is not interested in seeing Armanous’ creation when it opens. “Why should I see it?” he asks, chuckling. “I know it well enough.”