Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 19, 2020

Glen Eira Library Sunday Sessions: Libby Gorr chats with Eamon Donnelly

This promo session titled ‘Milk Bars, Mixed Lollies and Memories’ hosted by the Glen Eira Library network is a good example of how offering an accessible author talk on You Tube can generate interest in a book. Even if I’d heard of it, I would never have thought of reading this book on the title Milk Bars alone. But hearing Libby Gorr chat with the author Eamon Donnelly changed my mind about that. I’m really disappointed to see that this self-published book with a small print run is already sold out, but there’s bound to be a reprint. (See the author’s website).

Libby Gorr, who confessed to ‘being new at this kind of thing’, turned out to be really good at asking engaging questions and it was really clever of Eamon to include slides of the signage from milk bars now closed, in and around his part of Geelong — his quest to record these vanishing aspects of urban history was the catalyst for the book.   We also saw pages from the book, which works perfectly of course for such a visual book.  (LOL Not going to be successful for the text in novels).

If you’ve ever wondered why ‘milk bars’ are called by that name when they sell much more than milk, Eamon explained the origin of the name.  An entrepreneur in Sydney opened the first one of what became a chain in all our capital cities in 1932.  Modelled on the American concept, it was called the ‘Black and White 4d Milk Bar’ and it sold milk shakes…for 4d (4 pence in the old currency).  There aren’t so many of the original milk bars left now, but they still have the name.

Libby asked about the role of the milk bar in sticking together a multicultural society.  Refugees and new migrants to Australia were an opening other than factory work, for families to set up a new life in Australia and be part of a community.  Although adults often had limited English skills, their children helped with serving and translating, because (as many of us remember) the family lived behind or above the milk bar.

There was some nostalgia for the days of one and two-cent lollies, when you could choose your own.  Now they’re all sold in prepackaged bags, but in my childhood and Libby’s and Eamon’s we could take ages to choose what to spend our pocket money on, and as Libby said, they were always so patient while we chose.

Milk bars were also social places.  It was where you met your mates and sometimes got up to mischief, (and in my case, where I went as a schoolgirl with my friends for a milk shake after work with the pay from my Saturday job at Coles in Chapel St.)

Included in the talk were women who’d grown up in milk bar families, who shared a little about how hard it was to start up these businesses when they didn’t have English.  Vasy Petros told how her parents came out under the assisted migrant scheme (and her mother was a ‘Greek bride’ who came out separately).  They started a milk car in Elsternwick, which means I’ve almost certainly shopped there in my childhood.  Her father went off to do factory work while her mother with no English to run the café on her own.  She learned it all on the job, and I’m pleased to hear that she found the neighbourhood so supportive.

There were very long days: up at 3:00AM for the milk delivery, opening at 6:00AM seven days a week, and the only business that was open in those days on Saturday afternoon and Sundays.  Her sister Phyllis di Palma told us how her mother had to organise someone to take over in a hurry when she was pregnant and her waters broke, and Vasy told us how she hated serving because of the maths, especially in the era of changing over to decimal currency.  They also talked about the advent of plastic packaging and the ‘freebies’ to entice child customers, and how before that marketing was much ‘greener’.

Milk bars faced a slow death when supermarkets and 7/11 stores opened in the 1970s and squeezed out the trade, especially since more people had cars and could drive to the supermarket.  So this book is a valuable contribution to the urban history of Melbourne.  But there are still milk bars which survive… Libby mentioned some in her Bayside suburb, and we have one within walking distance though we lost the one that was really close by some years ago.  The local small supermarket began selling meat, fruit and vegetables and undercut the prices on everything the milk bar sold, and that was the end of the milk bar, along with our butcher and Vince Ferrucio’s greengrocery which sold the best and freshest produce I’ve ever been able to buy.  I used to buy my fruit and veg fresh daily, but if I was held up at school I could ring Vince and ask him to deliver what I needed to cook dinner, and it would be on my doorstep, on trust, and I would go and pay for it on Saturday.  He would tell me in advance when Seville oranges were in season for my marmalade, and get some specially for me because (not being sweet, which is why they make great marmalade) they weren’t good sellers in the shop.  Ironically, that supermarket now under different ownership, now needs the local community to support it in the face of online shopping…

I really hope that one of my libraries has bought a copy of this book!  There’s nothing in the catalogues that I’ve searched, but maybe there’s a copy being catalogued somewhere.


Responses

  1. In all the places I lived, up to say 1990 there was a milk bar nearby where the owners knew us and we knew them. The last was on the corner of Blackburn & Springfield Rds, viable despite the shopping centre and 7/11 just up the road but gone now of course. When I was at school in Colac we had a big old fashioned one (like Happy Days) with booths, and a long counter with stools. My poison was a spearmint thickshake.

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    • My all-time favourite was in Seymour. We moved up there in January when it was unbelievably hot and we had no fridge because my MIL had bought us a new one which couldn’t be delivered during the holidays. (Remember those days too? When *everything* closed down for the summer?) So, once a day we would head for the milk bar and have an icy-cold milkshake in the comfort of the air-conditioned milk bar and make it last as long as we could — and then toddle off home to wait for the cool breeze to blow in from the mountains.

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  2. Casts my mind back to fond memories of strawberry milkshakes in icy cold metal containers on trips on the ferry to Manly Beach as a young girl! The cardboard containers just don’t do it for me…

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  3. I loved visiting my grandmother in Warrnambool and being sent to the milk bar for something with a few extra cents to spend on lollies!

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  4. Gourmet that I am (not!) I can assure you that those lolly cigarettes are still available but are now called Fads. Although I’m not sure if they still have the red ‘burning’ tip… Teeth are definitely still around and can be found in any bag of Allen’s Party Mix (in the confectionery aisle of all major supermarkets) along with strawberries-and-cream, black cats, bananas and honey bears. Also chicos but I think they’ve recently had a name change. Yes, just call me the lolly connoisseur. At my place we call a bowl of mixed lollies a ‘lolly salad.’ Because sugar comes from plants…

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    • Gosh, I didn’t think they’d be allowed to sell lolly cigarettes any more … or that children would want them, given that schools do such a good job of educating kids about the dangers of smoking. (One of my mums used to dread it when the annual lesson came around, every one of her kids was nagging her to quit.)
      Do they taste the same if you don’t choose the lollies yourself, I wonder?

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      • The kids don’t even realise they’re meant to be cigarettes. As far as they’re concerned, I’m weird for trying to explain that that is what those weird white lolly sticks are. And of course they don’t taste as good as when you had 20c to spend at the milk bar. Nothing will ever taste that good again!

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