Lost in the big shakeup

Deli at 291 Walcott Street North Perth, c 1980. Photo from the City of Vincent Local History Centre image library, COV PHO6440

THIS week’s history corner from the City of Vincent Local History Centre looks at milk bars, drawing on a new book by Professor Graham Seal. Great Australian Places takes readers on a storytelling tour from iconic destinations to tiny settlements, remote landmarks and little-known corners of Australia.

THE terms for the local shop that sold bread, milk, soft drinks, newspapers, lollies and, originally, sodas and milkshakes, tend to be quite interchangeable from state to state. 

These basic, usually family-run businesses are almost all gone in the present day due to the growth of grocery and fast-food chains.   

Milk bars proper are like an Australian hybrid.  

British oyster parlours and American soda or ice-cream stores are partial predecessors to milk bars.

But the first local enterprise of this type is said to have been a shop at number 24 in Sydney’s Martin Place, which was established by Mick Adams in 1932. 

He was inspired by the classic American diner where sodas could be purchased and served at a bar. 

Other businesses of this type quickly popped up around Australia.  

It is estimated that in the 1930s, there were about 4000 milk bars in cities, suburbs and country towns. 

Many of these places evolved into what were effectively restaurants available to workers who were unable or unwilling to eat out at more expensive establishments.  

As time went on, the humbler local convenience outlets offering basic items of everyday needs, children’s confectionery and the like began to install the minimum equipment needed to whip up milkshakes, malted milk and related drinks.

Tiled palaces

Unlike the tiled palaces of the cities and larger country towns, these places were often just a room built on the front of a house where the family running the business lived.

Many of these more basic shops were also run by immigrant families. 

Greeks and Italians often took up the milk bar trade, as did Vietnamese immigrants years later.  

Owning a milk bar allowed an immigrant family to live in the attached house and everyone could help with stocking and operating a corner shop. 

In the 1950s and 1960s, some milk bars became youth hangouts with pinball machines and jukeboxes, usually with an emphasis on American pop music and fashion. 


“This was pretty much the high point of the local corner shops, whatever name they were known by.” [Excerpt from Graham Seal’s Great Australian Places (Allen & Unwin, 2023)]

Prof Seal will be giving a talk about his latest book at the City of Vincent Library and Local History Centre on May 24, 10am to 11.30am. 

To book a seat for this free event, contact the Library on 9273 6090 or book online at Eventbrite: https://tinyurl.com/mw57ze9v

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