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milk pan / milk-pan / milkpan

A pan in which milk is set to allow the cream to rise; or in which it is heated or cooled as the circumstances may require, for churning or for cheese-making. — Knight’s New Mechanical Dictionary, 1884

The scoured white shelves and sanded floor / And shallow milk-pans creamy-white / Gleamed coldly in the dusky light… – from “Livelihood” by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, circa 1917

A milk pan (Laura Ingalls Wilder sometimes wrote the two words hyphenated or as one word) wasn’t just any old pan used to hold milk, although any pan could certainly do the job. In the home dairy operation during the Little Years, a milk pan was usually a special shallow pan in which fresh milk was poured and then set away so that it would cool and the cream would rise to the top to be skimmed off for churning.

The “shallow pan” system employed milk pans of 2 to 4 inches deep and typically about 16 inches across, filled with warm milk from the cow and then set in a cool place so that the milk was cooled by the surrounding air. The large diameter and shallow depth of the pan allowed for more surface area of the milk to be exposed to the air, which hastened cooling. Cream in shallow pans would rise to the top in from 24 to 30 hours, depending on the air temperature. It was a delicate balance of milk depth and temperature, as the goal was to have all the cream rise so that pans could be skimmed and washed before being needed for the next day’s milking, while not allowed to sit so long that the milk soured. Disadvantages to the shallow pan system were that impurities could get into the milk and that it might take on undesirable flavors from the air itself, and that milk pans took up a great deal of space!

As shown in the 1897 advertisement at right, milk pans came in various sizes depending on how much liquid they held. They were also made of various substances, including glass, pottery, tin, and iron. Metal pans were often enameled, and double-walled pans allowed for cool water to lower the temperature rather than the air. A milk pan might have straight sides or a narrow rim that made it easier to carry, and some were made with a pouring spout. Today’s milk pan advertisement would more likely be for a small, lidless, handled cooking pot with a pouring spout; it is used to heat sauces or gravies that are then poured into another dish for serving.


milk pan / milk-pan / milkpan (BW 7, 10; FB 3, 10, 12, 17, 20; BPC 41; SSL 21; TLW 4; LTP 2, 9-10, 19; THGY 1, 33; PG)