What first rose to popularity as a health drink, the modest milkshake rose to popularity as Australia’s favourite beverage thanks to Greek run milk bars of the ’50s and ’60s. 

According to Macquarie University researchers, documentary photographer Effy Alexakis and historian Leonard Janiszewski, the pair have suggested that five years after Mick Adams’ (Joachim Tavlarides) creation of the “milk bar” in Sydney in November 1932, some 4,000 milk bars were operating in Australia (most were Greek-run), and that by the 1950s, milkshakes were confidently challenging tea as the most commercially popular light beverage of choice. 

“What we’ve been able to uncover is that by the 1950s milkshakes were in a commanding position in regards to challenging tea as a commercially popular light beverage,” Janiszewski tells Neos Kosmos.

He says Australians would look at milk bars as their “point of social contact”.

“[Australians] would go there in terms of family orientation, but it was also at the milk bars, particularly in the late 50s and early ’60s, that had a youth culture, so they were actually straddling both spheres – family and in terms of youth,” adds Janiszewski saying this phenomenon was Australia-wide and not just prominent in the big cities of Melbourne and Sydney.

“So whilst at home, Australians would be tea-totallers but when they went out they were looking for a sense of modernity and that happened to be aspects provided at milk bars through the milkshakes themselves. 

“You can see with statistics that were gathered during this time, consumption of tea was going down and consumption of milk and milkshakes was going up. And in so doing it became the national drink and it was part of the broader context of Americanisation within Australian society which the Greeks were a vehicle for – unconsciously of course.”

Alexakis and Janiszewski point out that commercial Greek involvement with milkshakes commenced in the United States during the late 19th century – particularly in the southern states. In Australia, milkshakes were being sold in pubs and emporiums just as Greek chain-migration was increasing to the Antipodes in the 1890s. Some of these Greek arrivals were from the United States and they took up selling milkshakes primarily on street corners – either shaking the ingredients (cold milk diluted with water and flavoured with vanilla powder) by hand, or with a hand-cranked machine (imported from the United States) that violently shook the contents, one or two glasses at a time. 

At this stage however, the drink was not exceptionally popular. With Adams’ “milk bar” revolution, its status quickly changed – Adams promoted the milkshake as a health food, imported electric Hamilton Beach milkshake makers to provide speed, efficiency and multiplicity in the production, and then undercut by five pence the price of milkshakes to customers. 

“When the milkshake came to Australia it certainly had developed further along the line and they would certainly put in things like butter, eggs, chocolate, rum essence, dried and even fresh fruit,” he says of ingredients used. Through this, two very different types of milkshakes were created; one that is thick and textured similar to today’s smoothie and one a smooth milkshake. 

During the ’50s, the milkshake began to lose its health drink emphasis and became a drink to tantalise the senses almost – both through taste sensations but also visual sensations.

“You started to get cream dollops placed on top of the milkshakes, you got a variety of sculpted glasses for the milkshakes themselves, and because they were a symbol that was good about modernity they were used to titillate people.”

Initially, male pub patrons flocked to milk bars (particularly for the bootlegger punch milkshake that contained a dash of rum essence). But it was the encroachment of the milkshake into Australian family life through the numerous, humble, suburban Greek-run milk bars, that not only sustained its longevity, but elevated its status to that of a national drink. During the 1950 and early 1960s, families and youth culture embraced the milkshake as an enjoyable, affordable treat – a symbol of modernity and the “good life” that it offered. But in doing so however, milkshakes themselves were transformed by booming commercial success, and the desire to not only maintain, but to further increase sales: what had initially been promoted as a health food by Mick Adams had become, by the 1970s, a concoction of fats, sugar and artificial colours and flavours. The Greek milk bar and its milk shake though had succeeded in challenging the dominance of tea as the preferred national light beverage. The Greek café would later play its part in the rise of coffee drinking.

“Whilst there were milk bars that were run by non-Greeks, it was the Greeks, definitely from the 1930s right up to the mid 1960s, who dominated the industry – absolutely there is no question about that. And it’s through these numbers that the milkshake was able to establish itself.”

Janiszewski and Alexakis will discuss this interesting development in their Greek café and milk bar research in two lectures which they will present in Sydney during April – part of the pair’s ongoing “Shakin’ the World Over: the Greek-Australian Milk Bar” series. The first will be delivered to the Ryde Historical Society at historic Willandra House, Top Ryde, on Tuesday 8 April, and the second to the Castlereagh Probus Club at Castlereagh Street, Sydney, on Monday 14 April.