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The Milk (Can) Man: A Canterbury man's unusual collection

Photos by Donna-Marie Lever

Ian Spellerberg holds a one-gallon cream can – part of an international collection that includes some “very unusual” copper and brass milk cans (further below).

Ian Spellerberg is allergic to milk, but the retired university professor has one of the largest collection of vintage milk cans in the world.

Inside a dim and dusty shed tucked behind a wire gate at the end of a shingle track, Ian Spellerberg’s face lights up and he breaks into a smile. “They are beautiful things,” he says, gesturing towards part of what he believes is the largest collection in the world of vintage milk cans. “You have the body, neck, shoulders… and then the head or the hat.”

The retired emeritus professor of nature conservation at Lincoln University has some 250 milk cans from 19 countries on display in several sheds and bach-style structures scattered across his property in rural Canterbury. Some designs date back a thousand years, he reckons, while the modern steel milk can is still used on farms today. But don’t call him a collector: this dapper gentleman in braces and sandshoes, who admits he lives locked in the 19th century, is quite simply mapping social history. He’s even written a book about it, Milk Cans – A Celebration of their History, Use and Design (Cadsonbury Publications,  $65, available at Smith’s Bookshop, The Tannery Emporium in Christchurch, or online at smithsbookshop.co.nz).

“Social life surrounded the milk can; it played such an important role in the early 20th century,” he says. “The daily arrival of the person collecting the milk was a big event – there were usually photos taken. Children would take the milk can to the gate before school, then it would come back with messages [attached]. That was very early social media!”

Copper and brass milk cans.

Ironically Spellerberg, who’s in his 70s and semi-retired, is allergic to milk, so can’t drink the stuff – but he’ll often bring a milk can back from a trip overseas, and he has a network of people scouting the globe on his behalf.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Some of the cans are wooden, others are made of bamboo. Some have spouts, others are square. One is from Russia. And many in his collection are quite rare. “This is the smallest milk can ever made: one eighth of a pint,” he says, cradling the can in the palm of his hand. “This is an English one; these are from Wales. I have brass, copper… It’s surprising what you find in people’s barns. One of my big cans was found in a barn covered in hay, in the United States, by a friend of mine there from England.”

An environmentalist, Spellerberg doesn’t like things being thrown away, and part of the joy he takes in milk cans is seeing how they’ve been recycled or “upcycled” (milk-can art is a thing). One of his favourite finds was a “rescue” can, abandoned on the side of the road in Palmerston North.

“People love painting them, but there’s no art and design museum in the world that has a milk can on display – I need to change all that,” he laughs. “Unfortunately, most people think milk cans are old, rusty things down the bottom of the garden with a rooster standing next to them.

“People often ask me what it’s all worth, but it’s better to think in terms of the social value. Milk cans played such an important role in the history of farming, and the story is still being told.”

This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of North & South.

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