Our Harbisons Milk Bottle T-Shirts Are Ice Cold

 

We've teamed up with Mark Adams at Hog Island Press to design a series of neighborhood landmark t-shirts. Harbisons Milk Bottle is limited edition and the first of our forthcoming series

We’ve teamed up with Mark Adams at Hog Island Press to design a series of neighborhood landmark t-shirts. Harbisons Milk Bottle is limited edition and the first of our forthcoming series

If you joined us for our 3rd anniversary at Carmen Gardens this past October you may have gotten a glimpse of our new Harbisons Dairy Milk Bottle Water Tower t-shirt we’ve created with Hog Island Press. The iconic milk bottle is the first design in our neighborhood landmark series–emblazoned on dark grey American Apparel unisex 50/50 Poly-Cotton blend t-shirts. They’re finally available to purchase at our new online store, Hidden City Mercantile, which features an eclectic array of Philly-related items both new and vintage.

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“Harbisons Milk and Ice Cream display on large milk bottle sits on elevated platform, 1961” | Courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Temple Urban Archives

Earlier this year the New Kensington Community Development Corporation took the first steps towards preserving this endearing, industrial landmark when it entered into an agreement with Cousins Supermarket–owners of the former dairy and surrounding property–securing the immediate future of the water tower from destruction, removal, or alteration. The memorandum of understanding (MoU) goes further to protect the milk bottle through routine upkeep and from destruction by future owners. Should the next holders of the property elect to remove the milk bottle, the MoU states that the NKCDC will be the designated recipient once it is taken down.

One of many dairies throughout Philadelphia’s history, the Kensington plant helped Harbisons stand out from the crowd. The giant, white milk bottle mounted on the roof quickly became a company trademark and a neighborhood icon.

The company was established in 1865 by the Harbison family. By the early 20th century the Harbisons had established a presence on the site at Abigail, Coral, and Dreer Streets. The milk bottle water tower was erected in 1914 as part of a modernization of the facility. However, brand identity was not what Harbisons had in mind when they first commissioned the structure.

In order to feed the building’s new sprinkler system, the company had its architect mount a water tower on the plant’s roof following a design no different than in any other neighborhood. Though, on a whim the architect suggested that the steel tower could take the shape of a milk bottle. When completed, the tower was painted white with the company’s scripted “H” logo, making Harbinson’s dairy instantly recognizable throughout the Kensington neighborhood.

milk bottle 22

1965 Harbisons Dairy calendar | Author’s collection

Following the inspiration at the Abigail Street plant, another Harbisons milk bottle was erected at Kensington and Erie Avenues (across from North Catholic High School) on top of the dairy’s main plant and ice cream production facility and one was erected atop a service plant at York Road and Ontario Street.

Even after refrigerators began to diminish the need for dairy deliveries in the 1920s, Harbisons maintained a customer base for fresh milk delivery. Shortly after World War II, the company opened a Bucks County plant in Langhorne. In 1951, the property at Coral and Abigail Streets–operating as the Kensington service plant–was sold to the Novick Brothers food company.

milk bottle_1

1965 Harbisons Dairy calendar | Author’s collection

Part of the sale an agreement with Novick was that they could keep the water tower intact under the condition that it no longer bore Harbisons’ signature milk white. Novick repainted the structure with the black and grey scheme that is still visible. Harbisons Dairy continued to operate out of its other locations until 1966 when the company was sold to the Southland Corporation, which supplied milk to 7-11 convenience stores, among other retailers. After another sale in the late 1980s to Johanna Farms, Harbisons ceased to exist.

Two of the three Harbisons locations are gone: the main plant at Kensington and Erie Avenues was torn down in the mid 1980s and replaced with a McDonald’s and Taco Ball. The service plant at York and Ontario Streets was demolished and the Bethune Mary McLeod School was built in its place. Only the facility at Coral and Abigail Street remains. Though rust and neglect have eaten away at the milk bottle over the years, this Kensington landmark still stands proud today.

Nicholas Phillippi contributed reporting to this article.


8 Comments


  1. The Harbisons Milk Bottle was the main landmark Yiayia and I would look for on our weekly Sunday morning trips into the city during the early and mid-1970s. Search Hidden City for “Yiayia” to get to the story…

  2. There was one Next to “Northeast Catholic High”. Legend has it, a student in class stared at the “bottle” there all year. He pretty much was failing the class. The teacher, on one test informed the student, “you can pass this class if you can spell the name that is on that bottle.” He could not. lol Also, I see the bottle when I am on the El at Y & D stop.

  3. I remember the bottle from my days at North Catholic. My dad worked for one of the competitors Foremost. Actually the company dad worked at changed hands four times… lst Scott Powell, then 2nd Aristocrat, then 3rd Foremost, 4th and finally Lehigh Valley Dairies….while he was there.

  4. You forgot Martin Century Farms between Foremost and Lehigh Valley so that makes 5 times

  5. When I was a kid and exploring a crawl space in the basement of the house I grew up in on Braddock street,I found an old quart Harbinsons
    milk bottle with pictures and says “try our new ice cream”. My brother said it’s probably from the 1950’s. I still have it in great condition on my workbench. I’ve had it for about 35 years now. I don’t know exactly how old it is. Would love to know.

  6. When I was in Elementary School at Elkin, we used to go there on Field Trips. They would always provide a small pack of cookies and a 1/2 pint of milk to the students.

    • Bob Faulds, '50 NECHS

      I Arrived at North Catholic Sept ~ 1947 ~ Faculty House was 1840 Erie Avenue. Harbisons address was 1841 E Erie Avenue,directly across From main entrance of NECHS. Our school store sold grey book covers for five cents- displaying Milk Bottle on back cover advertisement. The Bottle structure was viewable entire length of school and its three stories of windows.

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