Capturing the Last Milk Bars of Australia

Wednesday December 13, 2017 Written by suzi

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When I ask Eamon Donnelly what he used to go for at the milk bar, as a kid of the 80s kicking around in East Geelong, he reels off a list without a second thought: a Bubble o' Bill (“because it was a double whammy of ice cream and bubble gum”), a bag of mixed lollies (“mint leaves and fizzers mainly”), a sausage roll and a Big M – or sometimes a milkshake. 

Is it true the Big M killed off the milk bar?

They were originally called 'milk bars' because milkshakes were served to people at a bar. Then in ’78 Big Ms came out, and that did kill off the milkshakes.The very first milk bar was set up by a Greek-born migrant entrepreneur in Sydney back in 1932. His name was Joachim Tavlaridis, but he liked to be known as Mick Adams! His milk bar concept was based on the American soda bars, which had a big marble bar down one side, big mirrors and booths running down the other side. He opened this milk bar in Martin Place and it took off! By the mid-30s there were about 3,000 across the country; by the late 30s, the corner stores had also started to adopt that model. It’s got a really interesting history.

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As an artist and a photographer, what is it about milk bars that drew you in?

Milk bars were just my favourite thing, growing up. It’s such a strong childhood memory for everyone, being a kid and having one and two cent coins in your pockets and you could get what felt like 100 lollies for a dollar. Going to the milk bar was also my first taste of freedom. It was exhilarating as a kid, you get $5 from mum to go and get milk and bread and lollies and an ice cream, and you get in there and it’s like you’re inside a part of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

I suppose an interest in nostalgia and Australiana has always played a massive role in my work. l love the sense of connection you get with a milk bar. We’re more isolated than ever before, but when you walk into a milk bar, you’re walking into someone’s home. 

How did you get the idea for it?

It just started with my childhood milk bar, which I went to visit one day, wanting to walk through those doors. But when I went back I found that it had closed down. So I took a photo of the façade, and then remembered there were four or five other milk bars in East Geelong, and I found that they were all closed too, but they still all had signs left on them. So I just snapped them. They were still so loud and obnoxiously colourful, like little beacons in suburbia, so I tend to saturate the colour and bring out that warmth.

In 2012 I self-published a small, soft-cover book of photos from the project and that’s when it really took off. I was surprised it hadn’t been documented before. It really tapped into something and I’ve ended up on this kind of diverted path, which has just become a real obsession, to pay homage to that history before it disappears completely.

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And of the 300-odd milk bars you've visited and photographed since then, what are a few that have stood out? 

My trip to Sydney in 2014 was a highlight. I had a huge list of milk bars and addresses and off I went, up the Hume. I went to the Olympia milk bar [above, left] which has recently been closed down by the council. There’s this folklore around it because the owner kept his milk bar original since the 50s. It is really run-down, no lights, this long bar, an old cash register. He is in his 80s, and up until recently, was still making milkshakes.

And then around the corner in Summerhill was the Rio milk bar [above, right] owned by George, who was in his 90s. He wore a suit and worked seven days a week. He told me that back in the day, “It was like the set of Happy Days – and I was the Fonz!” That’s the best story I’ve had from any of the owners. He hand-painted his own signs, and he’d also cut out advertising using these words he found from chips and lolly packets to piece together these little home-made adverts.

George passed away a few years ago and the community was devastated. He was so important to them, they put a plaque out the front of the store to recognise his contribution. It’s now opened up as a bar and they’ve kept the façade and the name – now it’s called the Rio bar, they just dropped the ‘milk’.

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It’s a kind of sweet but also melancholy story then…

It’s true, you don’t get milk bars in the big cities and suburbs as much any more. It feels like there’s a 7/11 on every corner. That’s not a family-run business, you can’t easily get to know them when you’re growing up.

It’s not just the milk bars that are dying out; you think of the little local hardware stores and nurseries that have been killed off by the big hardware chains. The butcher down the road from me closed down just two weeks ago and they put a sign up on the window saying ‘Thanks for 40 years of your support.’

Every day there’s a new milk bar closing down and I get people calling up and even owners saying, “Come and document it before we close.” So yeah, it’s a sad project when you put it down on paper but I try to make it a celebration by the images – they’re not black and white or shot on overcast days, there’s always colour. Even the old, closed, derelict shops – I see so much beauty in them, in their faded signs and the peeling paint.

An extract from this interview appeared in the current Smith JournalEamon Donnelly’s 400-page coffee-table book will be launched in milk bars around the country in 2018. Find out more here.

Images: Eamon Donnelly #milkbarsbook