Note: This story originally appeared in AlumnInsider, the Penn State Alumni Association’s monthly member e-newsletter.
Fifteen years ago, the Penn State Dairymen’s Club board of directors brainstormed how to boost the two scholarship programs the group supported at the time (they now support three).
Ideas got passed back and forth before somebody suggested selling something that would turn into a successful campaign for years to come. The item aligned with the mission of the Dairymen’s Club, an Alumni Association Affiliate Program Group, and also doubled as a Penn State collectible that people could display in their homes and offices.
It was simple, but it worked. The idea? Milk bottles.
The group was already planning on passing out bottles as a favor during a banquet, and an additional order was made so a few extra could be available for purchase. The hope was that there would be some initial interest. There was and then some.
“They sold out really quick,” said Cindy Shaffer, ’80, ’86g, president of the Dairymen’s Club. “Everyone wanted them, the demand was great.”
The group orders between 1,200-1,400 bottles each year, with all proceeds benefiting an endowment fund that provides scholarships to freshmen pursuing the dairy science major at Penn State.
Each year features a new design, originally meant to recognize something related to Penn State’s agriculturally rich history, though many aspects of the University have now been honored: everything from the Penn State Agricultural Arena and the Berkey Creamery, to Old Main, the Lion Shrine and the elm trees.
This year’s design honors the S-Zone, the student section that the Alumni Association’s Lion Ambassadors organize for every home football game. The S-Zone celebrated its 16th year this season, and fits the criteria the committee considers when selecting a new design: an important tradition or symbol related to Penn State that’s located on the University Park campus.
“The S-Zone has become a tradition, a deep tradition that everyone looks forward to when they go to the football games, and we wanted to recognize them for that,” Shaffer said. “I think it’s extremely appropriate that we’re honoring the S-Zone, which comprises students, some of whom are dairy science students, and that’s who’s benefiting from the scholarships.”
Anybody can offer suggestions to the Dairymen’s Club board of directors, who will announce next year’s design sometime next fall. Shaffer said any and all alumni and Penn State fans across the world are welcomed and encouraged to offer suggestions.
Bottles can be purchased online by filling out this form and through the Berkey Creamery’s website. The bottles also are sold on location at the Berkey Creamery and at various University Park on-campus events, and are included in gift cheese boxes for a Dairy Science Club fundraiser. For more information on purchasing the bottles, call 814-865-7535.
Lolly Lesher, ’86, was a member of the original board of directors, and said that in addition to raising money, the group wanted to connect alumni back to Penn State.
“We were trying to find a way to generate income for the organization and also create something memorable that would engage the University to our membership,” Lesher said. “It’s a great fundraiser for our scholarships, and that’s really what drives us.”
Shaffer said that as long as there continues to be interest — and the numbers indicate there will be — the Dairymen’s Club will continue the annual tradition.
While the first bottle came out in 2000, seven of the previous 14 designs are sold out, and there’s demand even for the ones that aren’t. Shaffer said an individual bottle (the original, which is sold out) sold for $220 at an auction earlier this year, while four bottles that haven’t sold out went for $335 at a benefit auction; previous bottles that aren’t sold out are still available for purchase.
One other factor makes the bottles unique: they’re part of a larger market that is slowly shrinking.
Lesher spoke to the increasing interest in milk bottles as antique collectibles, whether related to Penn State or not. The bottles also speak to the University’s and area’s heritage as an “agricultural oasis” around the turn of the century, and when they’re tied back to Penn State, that makes them all the more desirable, Lesher added.
“Milk bottles are really a hot commodity, particularly the ones that are retired from dairies that have gone out of business or have been bought out,” she said. “They don’t use glass bottles that much anymore, so they’ve become a real keepsake.”