And yet. I started to think about the brave tale of our U.S.A. milk cartons. Enter: History!
Library of Congress
Remember what I said about milk going bad really quickly? That has been true for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Historically, nature has dealt with the problem by storing the milk in the cow.
However, not all of us own a cow. Farming was invented so we would not have to. Farmers pull the milk out of cows so you can drink it. (Or they used to.)
Actually, in the United States, a lot of rural people still owned cows into the late 19th century. To provide milk to town and city people -- a population that grew rapidly starting around the time of the Industrial Revolution -- dairy farms, generally small ones, at this point, hand-milked cows and put the products into glass bottles, which were then delivered to customers.
A farmer and his cow. So cute, I will not make a joke. (Library of Congress)
When farmers turned to mechanized milking at the beginning of the 20th century, some of the small farms got bigger, and production increased.
Here's the thing. Refrigeration didn't exist yet, unless you count the very ancient icebox, which you shouldn't. The icebox cost a lot to maintain and was inefficient -- because, as the name implies, it was basically an insulated box you put ice in, and ice tends to melt. And: glass doesn't insulate well.
This made milk going bad a problem. And you know what? No one had a good solution to the problem for a while! The best they could come up with was getting a milkman to bring fresh milk every single day and take away the empty glass bottles. This meant everyone always had fresh milk, but it also meant a family had to drink all the milk they ordered pretty fast, or else. It meant a lot of milk!
Library of Congress
Weirdly -- although the existence of one doesn't depend, really, on the existence of the other -- the refrigerator and the milk carton developed in parallel. The first refrigerators were tested in the 1910s. Meanwhile, the inventor of the milk carton (warning: this title is disputed by about a million people) took out his patent in 1915.
His name was John Van Wormer and his milk carton was basically the same as the one we use today. It's called a gable-top, in reference to the innovation of the spout temporarily glued into a ridge and unleashed by that weird pinching-pulling motion that I referred to earlier. The gable-top makes a pretty efficient use of materials, which also means you can produce it quickly. (The milk carton does not need a cap, you might note.) Van Wormer produced his original milk cartons in paperboard. And so they are today, but generally with a slick polyethylene coating, so they don't become vaguely wet to the touch once the milk soaks through.
As with the refrigerator, it took the milk carton two or three decades to catch on. People had become attached to their glass milk bottles.