For most of the nineteenth century, fresh milk was not a common commodity in cities. On farms, milk was mainly used for raising livestock. Only surplus milk was made into butter and cheese, and sold locally. In urban areas the low demand for fresh milk was met by cowsheds inside the city, or people bought what they needed from farmers at the edge of town. As a rule, milk was for infants and adults did not drink it on a daily basis. Fresh milk and whey were only prescribed for medical reasons and consumed, for example, by patients with pulmonary tuberculosis. Until the 1930s, consumption of milk was considered – along with meat – a sign of affluence. Milk, cream, butter and hard cheeses tended to be left off shopping lists as soon as money got tight. Moreover, it was inconceivable that men would consume milk. When the bourgeoisie launched their temperance movement and sought alternatives for alcoholic beverages, the “stronger sex” grumbled that they had no intention of becoming milksops.
The consumption of milk as a beverage did not establish itself until after 1870 – the shift resulted from new production and distribution systems, made up of farmers, dairies, retailers and processing industries. One reason for this development was the expansion of the cities. All over Europe, urbanisation and rapid population growth were leading to the breakdown of traditional forms of food supply. Milk, unlike grains, was an extremely perishable product and could not be transported far. Hygiene issues and the need to deliver it fresh limited its commercial use. Nevertheless, during the height of industrialisation, fresh milk became a very lucrative product. In 1865, a litre of milk in Berlin cost about ten pfennigs; only ten years later, it cost fifteen pfennigs; and between 1880 and World War One, the price rose to eighteen to twenty pfennigs.
Since the mid-19th century, the milk trade had become more complex in organisation: farmwomen or milkmaids who had stood at markets with their milk cans were driven out of business due to unhygienic handling or adulteration of their product, and replaced by milk depots and shops. It became increasingly common for milkmen to deliver fresh milk by horse-drawn cart to the doors of regular customers. The more astute businessmen among them started milking farms, the most radical form of product-oriented animal husbandry. As soon as a cow stopped producing milk, it was replaced. These farmers were not interested in making butter and cheese or in breeding. At the same time, industry’s general need for land forced out farms at the peripheries of the cities, which led to longer transport routes, and pushed butter and cheese prices down. Understandably, every farmer wanted to benefit from the boom for fresh milk.