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    Milk platforms have a place
    in Finnish hearts

    Satu Lehtinen

 

For over 50 years, milk platforms were an inseparable part of rural Finnish life. They are made special by the many functions they served. As Jaana Laamanen's doctoral thesis reveals, the clatter of milk churns was not the only noise to be heard at milk plat-forms. This central location in a village has seen teenage tears and heard many a debate to put the world to rights, even a few chil-dren have been conceived at milk platforms.


In the early 1990s, ethnologist Jaana Laamanen began studying Finnish milk platform culture.

Now, after eight years, the doctoral thesis is finished and the new doctor says that during the long research period, she never once became bored with the subject. "The subject is ideal from an ethnological point of view. Milk platforms meant a great deal to people, they covered all aspects of life."

Laamanen's research, the first and only one of its kind, is primarily based on recollections gathered by the researcher. The vast and diverse corpus includes interviews, oral and written information, archive material, press clippings and photographs. The researcher also stood by a milk platform at agricultural exhibitions and fairs and recorded people's memories.

When word about the thesis spread, people began contacting Laamanen on their own initiative. All in all, the number of informants rose to several hundred. "I never had to explain to anybody why the subject is important," Laamanen says. She also has personal memories. She is from a small farm in southern Savo and in her memories, the milk platform is a place to play, fetch milk churns and wait for the mobile shop. "For me, milk platforms are, along with cow pastures, barbed wire and hay poles, an important part of my childhood and the lost rural landscape."

An inseparable part of the landscape

Laamanen points out that even though milk platforms today may seem primitive, in their time they signified progress. They were born when milk processing became industrialised and milk needed to be transported to dairies, sometimes over long distances. The milk platform was a collection point, where the milk lorries would pick up full milk churns and drop off empty ones. Milk platforms are not just a Finnish phenomenon, they can also be found at least in other Nordic countries and Eastern and Central Europe. Milk platforms have been a part of the Finnish village community since the 1920s. Because they were so common and centrally located, they were a prominent part of the landscape. In places, they were so close together that one could see from one platform to another. Even as late as 1970, the landscape was dotted by around 90,000 milk platforms still in use.

The earliest structures were unassuming open platforms. In the 1950s, covered, ridge-roofed or pitched-roofed milk shelters began appearing along the roadsides. The last ever version was insulated. Milk platforms were built to serve one farm, two neighbouring farms or an entire village. Up to 34 milk producers could meet at a common milk platform, which they had built together. Numerous instructions and designs for building milk platforms circulated in the countryside. In addition to building specifications, recommended colours changed. The traditional red, suitable for other outbuildings, was replaced by lighter colours, which were less susceptible to sunlight.

"Dairies gave very specific instructions on what the milk platforms should be like, including what nails should be used. The attempt to standardise was strong, but milk platforms became individuals. Farmers used common sense: they adapted drawings to their needs and recycled materials," Laamanen explains.

Sometimes farmers let loose their artistic instincts. The most familiar milk platform is made of wood, but one farmer built a milk platform shaped like a milk churn out of galvanised sheet metal.

A hiding place and a brothel

"No milk platform was just a place for collecting milk," Laamanen reminds us. She discovered 30 different uses for milk platforms. The uses varied from one platform to another and some were used all year, 24 hours a day. "The conditions were favourable: the location was usually good and the place was felt to be neutral ground." The milk platform was an important scene for social interaction. It was a place to find someone to chat with and a place to put the world to rights with one's fellow villagers. Women's visits were usually connected with work: transporting milk, but also fetching the mail and visiting the mobile shop. Men came to milk platforms to also have fun. Besides a deck of cards, even women's knickers might be discovered at a milk platform in the morning.

At a time when the young did not have their own rooms and leisure time was spent around the village, the milk platform served as a youth club. It was a popular place for dates and meeting the opposite sex, and the scene for many a first sexual encounter. At more quiet times, it was even possible to curl up inside a milk shelter and cry after one's first love.

Milk platforms were village news agencies. Milk producers met one another and the milk lorry driver brought news from farther afield. Covered milk platforms served as notice boards with information leaflets and mobile shop and bus timetables. More malicious information was recorded in graffiti. "The most central location in the village was also a good breeding ground for gossip. In its milder form, gossip was just a pastime, at its most vicious, it might seal the fate of those concerned, as was the case with one of the favourite targets for gossip, illegitimate children and their mothers."

There is no going back to the old ways

Milk platform culture was tied to the livelihood. The milk platform era coincided with a boom time in agriculture. In the 1970s, milk tankers and vacuum collection arrived and with them, milk platforms became obsolete and many were dismantled as useless. Memories, laden with emotions, however, remained. Laamanen's informants represented a wide range of ages. The gender distribution in the data is also balanced: men reminisced almost as eagerly as women. The middle-aged were the most emotional about milk platforms. "For them, the memories are connected with their youth, and youth is usually a beloved phase in one's life. For the older generation, memories were connected with work: transporting and collecting milk. For them, the thought of their best working years is important."

The youngest informants were born in the 1970s. For them, milk platforms equal childhood summers in the country, grandmother and milk carts. The memory is naturally selective and memories become golden, but Laamanen does not see that as a decisive factor. "During the golden age of milk platforms, villages were populated by all kinds of people, hard work was valued and people believed in the future. Now, as the countryside is emptying and the times are uncertain, people like to look back."

Thanks to Laamanen's research over the years, milk platforms have attracted a great deal of attention. Two associations, a museum and a factory manufacturing replicas are dedicated to their memory. Even milk platform beauty queens and princesses have been chosen.

The new coming of milk platforms is not an isolated phenomenon. Laamanen does not like the phrase 'Finnish boom', but uses it for lack of a better one. "As late as the 1980s, milk platforms were branded unsophisticated and smacking too much of Finland's rural past. The 'Finnish boom' began in the 1990s and no end is in sight: for instance, local history, genealogy, and dialects are riding high."

Do milk platforms then have a future? The researcher reminds us that we cannot recreate a lost culture.

"Milk platforms will never again be used for their original purpose. Nowadays, their significance lies in being part of the landscape. They are repaired and built, because people feel that they belong in the rural Finnish landscape. Milk platforms make people happy. I think that is enough."

Jaana Laamanen: Maitolaiturilla - kansatieteellinen tutkimus maitolaitureista ja niiden asemasta suomalaisessa kyläyhteisössä. Kustantajat Sarmala Oy, Rakennusalan Kustantajat RAK, Helsinki 2001. ISBN 951-664 -084-2. English summary: At the milk platform. ß