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Born: In England after World War 1; the first imported metal tokens arrived in Wellington in 1922.
Death: Milk vendors’ monopoly removed by deregulation in 1986.
Use: A reusable proof of pre-payment for fresh milk delivery.
Description: The simplicity was elegant. Pay for the milk in advance, leave empty bottles by the gate, inside one of which was the number of tokens matching the desired order of milk.
All this could convey the information "Dear milk person, we would like nine bottles of milk please, and here are some empty bottles" — without needing to read or write a thing. Tokens were windproof, waterproof and milk-proof.
Milk tokens died during the Lange-Douglas deregulation of the 1980s. To compete with supermarkets, milk vendors sold on credit, with a damp, screwed-up bill at the end of the month, payable by damp, soggy cheque. Without tokens, customers had to place the correct number of empty bottles at the gate, or scrawl a note.
Then came non-returnable cartons and plastic bottles: Now there was no foolproof way of communicating with the milkie. Was this loss of ease of communication the reason for the demise of home delivery? It’s possible.
Comeback?: The industry has made a half-hearted return to glass bottles, but that is just a token gesture.
- Peter Dowden