I Came Back to Australia, and the Milk Bars Were Gone

Our critic recalls a childhood when these stores were around every corner. Things, sadly, have changed.

Comments: 69

  1. A sad story, even if Milk Bars were not a product of the early settlers, Transported from England.

  2. One of the enduring memories of my childhood was a small milk bar near my grandmother's house in Como, Sydney. The doorway had those colourful, thick plastic streamers hanging down to keep the flies out, and you had to part them like Moses to gain entrance.

  3. The thick plastic streamers at the entrance. Now you're talking.

  4. All that is true - milk bars are so loved by the boomer generation for all the right reasons of character, variety and homeliness. Lovely memories, but sad ones as well - not only has their material culture declined and homogenized but also the language we use. Children in Australia used to buy lollies, not candy. And, nowadays we seek the same products at what are still commonly known as petrol stations, not at what they will be probably all too soon known as, gas stations.

  5. You call it petrol, we call it gas. You call it loo, we call it bathroom, and someone calls it toilet. Different monikers, same difference.

  6. you obviously didn't get the nostalgia and longing for a time when language was not so homogenized... mostly Americanized. a lot of the romance of local languages is gone.

  7. Spot on story. It is hard to explain to my kids what the Milk Bar was like. How excited we were to earn or find ten or twenty cents, run to the shop together and spend about half a hour choosing a paper bag full of different one and two cent lollies. One of my Lebanese school friend’s parents owned a milk bar (which the family lived behind) and she was looked up to in the school ground with a special status. I really feel that we had a much better childhood. Our children have so much more technology and things, but we were so much more creative and fun.

  8. I grew up in a Melbourne suburb and my best friend lived in the residence attached to the milk bar which most had. I thought it was the greatest thing to live there with access to all the shop contained.

  9. Paddle pops! Fish and chips wrapped in newspaper! Bare foot walk in directly from the beach. Violet crumbles! Ah, the sweet memories of the milk bar. Awesome article. Tasting that paddle pop now.....

  10. Paddle Pops, mate. (Capital P's all round.) Great, great memories.

  11. @GF We still have Paddle Pops, but they are about $1.50 these days not like in days of yore when a Polar Boy (an Ice Block) cost 4c and the more expensive Paddle Pop cost 6c! Violet Crumbles are no more but you can buy Violet Crumble Ice Cream in tubs... Chokito Bars, Redskins and Golden Roughs still tickle the palate of Nostalgia and Potato Scallops can still be found that actually taste like the versions of 40 years ago. As a kid in the late 1960's, 20c stolen from Mum's Purse could buy a big bag of lollies some of which were sold at 4 for 1c , but mostly 2 for 1c and up. The vestiges of our early memories still exist but like most things today are threatened by extinction or hugely endangered by modern circumstance. But...those were the days my Friend....

  12. What a great memory. Thank you for sharing. The history of milk bars reminds me of ice houses in my hometown of San Antonio, which the NYT has written about in the past. Originally, their main purpose was to sell ice, but they evolved into convenience stores. They were also community centers where people sat and drank beer on nice days or cool evenings. The ones that are left sell beer almost exclusively and are basically open air beer joints for the local neighborhood. When I was a child in 1960s San Antonio, people would call every mom-and-pop convenience store an ice house, or sometimes an ice station. but that vernacular sadly faded away as large corporate chains took over. Like you as a child, I felt like the possibilities were endless when I had some change to spend at Mr. M, the local ice house.

  13. I lived in Melbourne for many years. Many of friends’ parents (first Greek, later on Chinese) had milk bars business. For many new migrants, it was a way to gain financial independence. But it’s hard life. Basically the whole family is tied up. Long hours. No downtime. No vacation. My Greek friend joked it was much lower hourly rate than my dish washing job and he didn’t even see the money.

  14. Beautiful story and photos of the Milk Bars. In NYC, we have already lost so many Bodegas.

  15. In Strictly Ballroom, the Spanish-speaking residents of the Milk Bar took in a lovely young Australian man and taught him how to tango. For reals.

  16. I had not heard of the Black and White 4d Milk Bar of 1932 and I found this story very interesting. I suspect "4d" is not a reference to hyperspace but rather to the price of the milkshakes - 4 denarii or 4 pennies. When I first patronized milk-bars in the 1950s, the price had increased to 10d and sybarites paid a shilling (12 pennies, written 1/-) for a "malted milk". All three flavours (chocolate, strawberry and vanilla) were the same price. Your milkshake was served in a tall metal beaker with a paper straw and you drank it on the premises, then left the empty beaker on the counter for reuse. No take-away and no litter. Those were the days.

  17. If I recall correctly Andrew we had to pay an extra trey if we wanted 'malt' in our milk shake to make it into a malted milk

  18. Ah yes, the ever-mutable retail landscape. One wonders if children today will grow old with equally fond memories of their first trip to a Seven-Eleven? (I can recall the first time I had a Slurpee, back around 1966...) In Hawaii, we had the mom-and-pop "crack seed store" (and there are a few left), which sold everything from Chinese-style sweet and savory preserved fruit (plum, cherry, lemon, mango, some mouth-puckeringly salty, others sticky with syrup), all lined up in dozens of huge glass jars, to the latest hot-selling candies and snacks. And though this was a different kind of business, in Japan--well before my time--they had "milk halls," a business that flourished between the mid-1870s through the early 1920s. They were the cafes of their day, part of a Meiji era government push to nurture a sturdier, healthier population by encouraging people to drink milk, which had never been a part of the traditional diet. Milk halls were eventually subsumed by a wave of even trendier coffee shops that played into the fashionably adventurous sensibilities of the Taisho era. So things change, but we have the ability to recall our favorites through evocative prose, as this writer has.

  19. Much of Southeast Asia had provision shops, where all manner of dried, pickled, sweet and salted fruits or seafood could be had by the piece, biscuits (cookies to Americans) could be purchased as singles from large glass containers with metal lids, homemade frozen fruit syrups sold in thin plastic tubes, bottled sodas poured into plastic bags with red plastic tubing handles with a block of ice chopped with a parang (machete) off a 50 kilo block to carry away and consume, various local candies by the piece along with western candy bars, and if a really good provision shop there was a hand crank ice shaver larger than an old fashioned cash register to make syrupy ice balls (10 cents, share with friend) placed directly into our open palms. Among all this were batteries, cigarettes by the pack or individually, tinned food, cosmetics, feminine hygiene products, baskets, magazines, brooms, dustpans, soap and cleaning products. Cooking oil was sold from a drum and ladled into containers the adults brought. Many had illegal games of chance called tikam tikam. A stray cat or some chickens were often nearby. Lost in the US landscape are the old 5&10 stores which sold everything from bulk candy to gift box candy to sewing yardage and animal feed along with hardware, parts, aprons, postcards, comic books, pulp paperbacks, greeting cards and wrapping paper, toys and junk jewelry along with the dark gray speckleware pots and pans. Some also served as the local post office.

  20. I had the same realization after many years living abroad: https://instagram.com/p/BhbOjU0DaN-/

  21. In Toronto there were two competing brands, Becker’s and Mac’s Milk. I must be older than the author because with a dime I could buy a small bottle of no name pop, drink it, return the bottle for a nickel and then purchase a popsicle or bag of penny candy with the 5 cents. I was just thinking the other day how these fixtures in the community, everyone ate ponytail white bread which every kid recalls being sent with a quarter to the milk store to buy, have disappeared. Years later when Becker’s was long gone and only a few Mac’s remained my sister dated a Becker’s heir. I still recall being slightly in awe of a guy who descended from that revered childhood brand.

  22. I think the milk bars were great when I lived in Sydney in 1970. I have now lived in New Zealand for 47 years and thank goodness we still have the Corner Dairy now run mainly by Indian families. So far no 7-11 stores but we unfortunately do have Starbucks nick named (Charbucks) because they burn the beans to give you some coffee taste through all the stuff they add to the coffee. We also have small independent fish and chip shops which are often excellent.

  23. It's a familiar story, and it's happening all over the world in all retail sectors. The small, independent businesses disappearing and being replaced by corporate chains. It's emblematic of a cultural shift. Back in the day most people who opened corner shops or restaurants didn't expect to get rich. They hoped to make a good living, of course, but they didn't expect to sell up and retire in their forties, or become the next KFC. Their restaurant/deli/bar/grocery was their life as well as their business, it gave them their place in the community, it had a meaning beyond the bottom line. Of course, it wasn't efficient. If what you're interested in is monetization, in maximizing the return on investment, the Starbucks/McDs corporate model is going to make you millions and the mom and pop diner looks laughably unambitious. But if you're interested in something beyond the merely transactional - and most of us are - it's a pity.

  24. In the 1970s, the milk bar across the street from my office in Sydney's Surry Hills neighborhood introduced this Texas native to the baked-bean sandwich, pineapple doughnut, and other Aussie curiosities. An even fonder memory is stopping at a milk bar on Old South Head road as I walked my young daughter home from school, then watching her puzzle over which treat to choose.

  25. I feel nostalgic reading this, even for the more modern milk bars I experienced during the 90s. We all miss the simpler times. The milk bars from the 50s with real milk shakes sound amazing! Sadly the economics just don't stack up for the business anymore. Average purchase value was always small. Back in the day it could probably work because the cost of living was lower so businesses didn't need big profits to survive - plus there was less completion so purchase volumes were probably higher despite low average value. But these days supermarkets and convenience stores are so widespread with so much variety. Add in the cafe culture that has developed. Not to mention the rising cost of real estate/rents. How can the simple milk bar selling a homogenous cartons of milk, packaged ice creams and chips/lollies compete? As sad as it is, their offering has not evolved with the times and it's been decades since they offered a unique customer experience. Interestingly there are one or two milk bars I know of that have been purchased by "hipsters" and turned into dens of nostalgia, serving fabulous home made milk shakes, a unique selection of lollies not available from the competition and sometimes burgers and more. They thrive as a result.

  26. This is really no different to searching for an old school soda fountain in the US. I can't think of a single one in Rhode Island either on its own or as part of a drug store. It's tough enough trying to find a traditional diner with the long counter and stools.

  27. There are still a few survivors out there. Try the Red Arrow Diner in downtown Milford, NH, smack dab next to the Souhegan River; it's a real time machine with great food and amazing pies. Another good one is the Royal Chelsea Diner on Route 9, west of West Brattleboro, VT, right before the road starts climbing.

  28. @sav Indeed - although my mom still regales us with tales of her first job as a soda jerk. Being a sweet-lover herself, she did not go light on the flavoured syrups and (real) whipped cream.

  29. Good piece bringing back fond memories of milk bars in Brisbane where I grew up in the ´60s. Remember being sent by my mum to the Greek's shop up the road with a shopping list and an extra shilling (or could have been two bob) in my pocket for a milkshake. Strict in these matters, my Nordic mum, though, sometimes thought the hygiene of milk bars might have been a bit dodgy in the Queensland heat. Never had any problems, though.

  30. I came back to Berkeley, and the bookstores were gone. The Caffe Med was gone. All the cafes were gone. Telegraph avenue was an empty ruin. I came back to Cambridge....and the cafes and bookstores were gone. Out of Town News was gone. All that's left is parasitic consumerism.

  31. usually run by Greek immigrants, they also made the best hamburgers - with grilled onions and beetroot - delicious. Ya carnt get those anymore ...

  32. There are a handful of endangered species remaining (the chicken salt … oh the chicken salt). Like all endangered species they should be protected.

  33. The Hoosier version, mid 1950s; a small town Indiana candy store, a block down from the grade school. We called it Toads; the proprietor was a small, grizzled, dwarfish man, ugly. His heart was gold. Thanks for the memory.

  34. > otherwise known as an allowance. What? An allowance? I think you mean "pocket money".

  35. Nostalgia aside, it doesn't pay bills. For those who say, "Don't change the paint!" or some such, are they still customers who come in everyday to purchase? Put it another way, these milk bars disappeared for a reason, which is that, customers don't come in anymore. They want supermarkets and other newer, fancier digs. Whatever you call it, milk bars, corner stores, mom-and-pops stores, they are business that needs to turn a profit in order to survive. They are not museums for altruistic purpose. People like this article's writer love the nostalgia feel of milk bars because it reminds them of their younger, more innocent days. But these are not people who continue do business with these small stores. And then they turn around and lament gentrification. I'm sorry, but that's just part-hypocritical, part-disingenuous to me.

  36. What killed milk bars was McDonalds.

  37. I think it was 7/11 and petrol stations selling the same things as the milk bar that did them in. Milk Bars in my day didn't do hot food beyond week old meat pies!

  38. "Milk Bars"everywhere, especially in the Southwestern and Western U.S. have been killed by fickle customers and hipsters soooooo eager to make a buck. We lose our history at the speed of greed.

  39. 50 cent minimum chips! Does anyone else remember those days?

  40. 10 cents of "mixed lollies" and you came out with a bag bursting with sugary goodness! No health and safety back then, the shopkeeper put the lollies in with their bare hands just after he had handled money, somehow we survived!

  41. I remember the sixpenny minimum; I kid you not.

  42. 5 cents for mixed bag, or a sunnyboy, after a swim at the local pool on a hot day after school. we survived indeed!

  43. Wow! I live in the tiny town of Woodend and was gobsmacked to see a photo of the milk bar I walk past every day in the NYT! Great nostalgic article.

  44. I suggest you do your research on the success-or lack thereof-of Starbucks in Australia, Besha.

  45. Starbucks has flopped here in Australia, their outlets are closing and is it any wonder? We have a great coffee culture here, and we get REAL COFFEE. Not that stuff masquerading as coffee put out by Starbucks

  46. For anyone who care, there is a small repository of milker photos in this group. https://www.flickr.com/groups/old_milk_bars/pool/

  47. I'm an octogenarian, living in Sydney now, back in the 1950's I lived in Melbourne, and was a frequent visitor to a milk bar in Flinders Street just around the corner from Elizabeth which was run by a well known Australian / Greek ; (Melbourne Victoria has/d the largest Greek population of any city after Athens). His name is Nick Polites and he was well known as a clarinetist with the Frank Johnston Dixieland Jazz Band. I used to go to see them play every Saturday night at the Collingwood Town Hall, Nick is still alive in his 90's and still playing clarinet, He made a tour of the USA ion his 80's. His father had a confectionery shop near Nicks Milk bar. Your report brought back some very happy memories Thank you :)

  48. Obviously an eastern staters’ thing. As a sandgroper I’ve never heard the phrase “milk bar”. It was always a deli. And there’s not much difference between those and 7/11s and their variants. Also you’re worried about these things when you use the phrase “candy bar”. I was more saddened by your loss of our language than by the loss of delis.

  49. so would you say "lolly?" - clearly a British word or is there some Australian idiom? We used to say lollies when I was a kid (55 years ago)

  50. To the British a lolly is what to an Australian is an icy pole. To an Aussie, a lolly is what to a pom is a sweet(y). (I grew up bi-lingual...)

  51. Dave you should make the drive to Guildford. I know it is a bit out of the way for someone in Perth, but the milk bar is great.

  52. There was a milk bar beside the Lutwyche movie theatre in Brisbane that made the best malted milks in the 50s. During the Saturday matinee interval I'd buy a malted milk and maybe a box of Jaffas and settle in to watch the latest western movie from Hollywood. The theatre and the milk bar are long gone but not the memories.

  53. Homesick for things which don't exist any more. I know that feeling.

  54. I live in Brisbane and had milk bars as a kid and now these same stores have been re-birthed as funky local coffee shops full of great coffee and adult treats. I timed my life well :)

  55. Come to Guildford way out in the wild west where life goes on like in the 90s--1890s that is. We've got a great milk bar on a main street.

  56. There's still a real milkbar in my local shops in inner Melbourne. And you know what? I've never been in! Now I've read this I feel the need to go and check out the going rate for Mates and Sunny Boys.

  57. Hate to tell you, but the delis and bodegas in New York ARE gone - compared with when I first moved to the city in the '80s. Where there were once four 24-hr delis within a few blocks, there is now one, if at all. 24-hr diners are also a dying breed, most of my favorites downtown have vanished over the past decade. This is happening all over, as demographics change. After all, if you are living in a $7M loft, you probably don't eat $7 diner burgers too often.

  58. The Olympia Milk Bar on Parramatta Road in Annandale closed in November 2017 https://www.news.com.au/finance/small-business/sydneys-olympia-milk-bar-...

  59. Yikes, I walked by it a few times. It was like a little shop of horrors inside. I swear, the lollies in the window display had been sitting there for 10 years....

  60. @justine NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! I planned to visit it last year but got distracted and now it has gone?? Woe is Me... :-(

  61. A fascinating story. Thank you. Until I had read this the most famous Milk Bar I had heard of was the Korova Milk Bar -- which astute film goers will remember as the Milk Bar that Alex and his Droog friends visit in Clockwork Orange.

  62. Great reading you once again, Besha! So happy to see you here. You got out just in time. ;)

  63. Won’t be replaced by Starbucks, which tanked in Australia because Australians prefer good coffee.

  64. Oh, I do so miss our Deli. It was known as "Fred's Deli" which then became "Nick's Deli" when it passed to his son. I miss the lollies (sweets). The pineapples, the mint leaves, the bananas... All about 2 cents each. I miss walking there, I miss the brown paper bags that our carefully selected collection of sugary goodness, paid for with our pocket money (allowance). I miss that you could actually get something with 20 or 50 cents! Adelaide is a small place. Some years after Nick had to shut the doors, I crossed paths with him at a funeral - he's now an undertaker & loving it. But, oh, how I miss our corner deli!

  65. On my trip to Australia in 2010, I encountered my sole Milk Bar of the trip on a corner in Launceston, Tasmania. I can see the attraction. However, I never saw any of them anywhere else I went, including Melbourne, Sydney, Hobart or Canberra.

  66. Not sure if this has already been mentioned but a fantastic new book " The Milk Bars Book" (Coffee Table edition with 400 Glossy pics throughout) celebrating the Australian Milk Bar is being released in September and available for pre-order here: https://milkbarsbook.com/pages/about-the-book For those Aussies reading this page, this book is a must! In my opinion , anyway.

  67. yes! Our version of the milko was on Waratah Ave in Dalkeith, WA, and it was called Blueberries. The storekeeper was a slightly grumpy s. asian lady (can you blame her? The place was overrun by shrieking children making 40c worth of purchases). Many an afternoon began there, with 10c lolly bags, or, for a splurge: the 25c redskin bar or milko bar, or a bag of fantales (ultra luxury). Now, I think of it as a symbol of our autonomy. We ran (and biked and skated) and ate ridiculous amounts of sugar and made up our own games and rules. It was the best.

  68. The 14th of February 1966, when the country switched from pounds, shillings and pence to dollars and cents, was a momentous day for Australia’s kids. A sixpenny bag of mixed lollies turned into a 5-cent bag. So basically prices for us kids went up 20% in a day. It was worse if you just wanted thruppence worth of lollies. I still remember trying unsuccessfully to persuade a shopkeeper to exchange a threepenny bit for three individual pennies so I could then purchase six cobbers instead of four.

  69. For me it was always a ham salad sandwich/ roll, beetroot or bust. And it is still what I get, in local county towns at the bakerys ( where you can sit down for lunch). Along with lamingtons, custard tarts, vanilla slice, milkshakes and decent coffee. And meat pies of at least 7 varieties. Not quite the same as a milk bar, but definitely a fixture of my childhood in the 70’s which still thrives locally. Sadly not the Blue Bird cafes though. RIP.