28 June 2016

Did Australia invent the Milk Bar?

It has been argued that the first business using the name "milk bar" was started in India in 1930 by an Englishman, James Meadow Charles, when he opened Lake View Milk Bar at Bangalore. The concept soon spread to the UK, where it was encouraged by the British Temperance Society to lure people away from the pub; over 1,000 milk bars had opened nationally by the end of 1936.

Now a new book has appeared that focuses on the Australian exp­er­ience. Greek Cafes & Milk Bars of Australia by Leonard Janiszewski and Effy Alexakis (published by Halstead in 2016) reported that during the Great Depression, Greek migrant Joachim Tavlaridis/later Mick Adams migrated from Greece at the age of 14. He accepted low status jobs in restaurants and food shops to save up enough money to build his own business. Food businesses, take-away shops, restaurants and delis were good industries for individual Greek migrants to establish their own financial viability.

These industries also represented community services to thousands of newcomers to Australian shores. Food businesses, often family-owned, allowed newly arrived Greek migrants a way to assimilate in their adopted country, by creating job opportunities. The Greek migrants could learn English and develop skills that would help them integrate into the Australian economy.

Black and White 4d. Milk Bar in Sydney's Martin Place, 1933

Beautiful Wellington milk bar, 1935
Photo credit: Shorpy

The research of Janiszewski & Alexakis reported that Greek migrant Mick Tavlaridis Adam was the first businessman to open the traditional Australian milk bar after returning from a trip to the USA. Adams set up the Black and White 4d. Milk Bar in Sydney's Martin Place in November 1932.

Early milk bars were bars where the product was a non-alcoholic milkshake. Then they added some seating, served snacks and later provided a juke box. They became a place for young people to socialise, and were often located close to picture theatres. They became a social centre for Greeks, as well as becoming an integral part of the local community. Every year for example, Adams gave a day's takings from his milk bar to the local Dellwood Children's Home.

It has been suggested that the temperance movement influenced bus­in­esses to offer milk-based drinks as a way of encouraging Austral­ians away from too much alcohol. And I agree that during the horrible Depression years, any business that enticed male workers away from the pub across the road was a good thing. After all families during the Depression were often unemployed or didn’t have enough money to feed the children.

But the temperance movement, which had been so dominant in the development of Australian coffee palaces in the 1880s-1890s, lost its driving energy after the Great War. Yes many people would rather come to the milk bar and have a milkshake rather than a beer, but that was because milk was healthier and cheaper, not because the customers were committed teetotallers. [The 4d fourpence in Adam' shop name was designed to emphasise the very affordable price set by Adams for the purchase of a milkshake].

So if the influence was not the temperance movement, Janiszewski looked to an American influence instead. He explained that Adams' milk bar was different because it broke away from the sit-down meal affair of other Greek-run businesses of the time. Adams had the idea to efficient take-away table service, to get a lot of customers.

Wanting to serve Australia a slice of the American Pie, the Black and White 4d. Milk Bar's main feature was the bar counter with limited seats on one side and milkshake makers on the other. This design was inspired by his observations of early 1930s American soda parlours. For local families who loved establishments like the Black and White 4d. Milk Bar, Adams and other Greek businessmen turned a basic American offering into a an iconic part of Australian culture, with a Greek accent. Dream merchants indeed!

5,000 customers crowded into the Black and White 4d. Milk Bar on its opening day and within five years there were some 4,000 registered milk bars throughout Australia. Mick Adams himself went on to open several more milk bars in NSW (both in Sydney and other regional cities) plus the interstate cities of Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne.

Prahran milk bar today
photo credit: Vice

One of Urban List's five favourite milk bars in Melbourne, 2015

Milkshakes were not new in Australia, so we have to ask what was so special about an American-style milk bar that served nothing else. With its handsome art deco design, the impact of Adams' Black and White 4d. Milk Bar was far-reaching. As they spread across the country, to every town on a railway line, the passion for milk bars spread. And although icecream was not an ingredient of these early milk shakes, the flavours were new and exciting. 

After WW2 ended, milk bars continued to thrive but were radically changed. Although the personal relationship between the customer and the shop owner continued, the milk shake bar and stools were taken away. Much of the clean, open, modern Art Deco look disappeared from the remaining milk bars, to be replaced by an enormous range of products like groceries, soft drinks, newspapers, fish and chips, sandwiches meat pies, cigarettes, Chico rolls and lollies.

As a child in 1955 I was not allowed to eat lollies at home. But if I had a penny pocket-money left over at the end of a week, I could rely on the local milk-bar owner to select 4 small, luscious lollies for me to eat on the way home from school. Thank you Mr Pickering for not telling my mum!

In time, the milk bar was gradually replaced by fast food franchises and shopping malls. Milk bars can still found across the suburbs today, usually within walking distance from most family homes. But now they serve as small Mixed Businesses or Convenience Shops. And they feel cluttered.


Dina said...

Chico rolls 😂 I remember them very fondly.

Hels said...


most people around in the 1950s and 1960s say that :) Just as Peter's Icecream was the health food of the nation, so Chico rolls were another Australian cultural icon. And the timing was perfect for post war milk bars - they started in 1951.

Andrew said...

That is an expensive book. I will see if the library will buy it. You are quite correct about surviving milk bars, cluttered and generally unattractive, but not so 711s and their success, perhaps based on underpaying staff, should not be surprising. I think New Zealanders call their milk bar equivalent, 'the dairy'.

Hels said...


You know what was the most surprising finding for me? The book was written out of pride in Greek history and did a great job. But one of the authors (Leonard) said they had initially wanted a companion publication to their touring exhibition "Selling an American Dream: Australia’s Greek Café", which opened at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra in 2008.
How did selling an American dream resonate with Greeks and Australians during the Great Depression? Their entire knowledge of the USA came, I would imagine, from Hollywood films.

By the way Booktopia is charging slightly less ($42.50)

bazza said...

One almost aches with nostalgia! I remember Lyons Corner Houses in London.
I did enjoy the cafe society in Sydney although I didn't notice the places that used to be milk bars. Incidentally, it made me smile that Joachim Tavlaridis became Mick Adams. There is a joke about a Jewish man who wants to Anglicise himself but overdoes it by changing his name from Herchel Goldberg to Jeremy Horsebox.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...

oh bazza,

I also remember Lyons' Corner Houses very well, the UK's greatest contribution to Edwardian civilisation in my opinion. The shops were elegant and the waitresses looked smart. But I think by the time I arrived in Britain for the first time (1966), the future for Lyons' shops was looking less rosy.

Re the craze for milk bars in Britain in the inter-war era, I cannot find much. In 1935 the first milk bar was set up in Fleet St by an Australian, as it happens. Within one year there were 420 throughout Britain. Mick Adams would have smiled :)

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, As one especially interested in the history of the dairy industry, I was fascinated to read about the development of the Australian milk bars. These seem somewhat analogous to American soda fountains, which played such a large part in popular culture starting in the 19th century. Their masters of ceremony, called soda jerks, were also immortalized in American literature and lore. Soda fountains ranged from mild Art Deco effects to full Victorian extravaganzas, and likewise were rallying points for the temperance movement, although I think that most people appreciated them on their own merits.

Hels said...


As a very young teenager I loved reading the Archie and Jughead comics, along with their friends Betty and Veronica. So soda fountains and soda jerks were extremely familiar. And I bet teenagers thought they were super places to hang out, away from the prying eyes of teachers and parents.

I can also understand why Mick Adams and his other Greek businessmen would want to serve Australia "a slice of the American Pie", especially in the horrible years of the Great Depression. The design, equipment and furniture they chose was clearly inspired by what they saw of early 1930s American soda parlours.

But what happened to the old American soda parlours? Did they survive intact or were they modified/neglected because of changing entertainment preferences amongst teenagers?

Andrew said...

The authors were interviewed on ABC local, but national radio. A lot of work over a long period has gone into the book, so I judge the price to be quite fair. The quite interesting podcast is at http://www.abc.net.au/nightlife/stories/4506018.htm

Hels said...


Until the publicity surrounding the book Greek Cafes and Milk Bars of Australia, I would never have even asked the question: did Australia invent the Milk Bar? OF COURSE WE DID! We invented surf lifesaver lads in teensy bathers, didn't we? And sweets like Violet Crumble Bars and Minties?

So now I will listen to the podcast with a more open mind :) Thank you.

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Hels said...

Happy Australia Day to you too!