The ancient trade of milkmaids

Canarian milkmaids blog

Old trade of milkmaid in Tenerife

Formerly, the figure of  milkmaids existed in the Canary Islands, women who for centuries fed several generations with fresh dairy products that they brought from the countryside, and who sold house to house. It is not difficult to remember them even carrying large milk jugs on their heads and in their arms, always dressed in aprons with pockets to be able to collect the milk they were selling. Tireless working women who contributed to the family economy.

Table of Contents

Canarian milkmaids
Old image of Canarian milkmaids

Milkmaid clothing:

His clothing consisted of canvases, a white apron and a hat.

“If we did not go with the white apron they would give us a hard fine.”

Some were dressed in black, others in whatever clothes they had. They wore a hem that was placed inside the hat and the basket on top, they did it with a rolled piece of cloth and it served to “not grind their head.” Sometimes they had to help each other load and unload because it was too heavy for them to do it alone. They had a pocket in the front part of the apron, where they kept the coins, the bills were placed in another pocket closer to the body, for more security.

“They tied a small bag with the dogs around their waists, it had a zip on one side, and on the other side they had loose money to return” (Marichal; 2006).

The great economic deficiencies prevented the population from having shoes, for this reason, when they got a pair, they took care of it jealously. So much was the consideration they had with footwear that most of the time women made the trips with bare feet, so as not to damage their shoes, wearing them stored, and putting them on only once they reached their destination. For some travelers, the islanders were so used to walking barefoot that when they put on their shoes, they were disturbed when walking, which is why they preferred to continue with their bare feet. However, the reality is that the peasants were so poor that, when they had some, they looked for the precise means not to wear out their soles (Pérez; 2006)


“Suddenly two girls appeared walking with undulating and firm steps, their bare feet seemed to tread the rough ground with greater ease than the badly shod hooves of our saddles, because they did not take care to tread carefully, attentive only to arrive when before to their destiny and loosen the burdens of their heads ”.

Source: Pérez, T. G. (2006).

Milkmaid card

The regulations required that they be identified with their dairy card, which helped to control the people who carried out this activity; selling milk without the license could lead to a serious penalty.

“We had to go by wearing health care clothes”

Going sick with milk could also be a penalty. Years of work gave them a special ability:

“We were so crowded that we emptied a liter into the bottles without a bottle or anything.”

Milk is a very delicate product that spoils easily, if it was cut for any reason (and it was fairly easy for this to happen: changes in temperature, dirt, hustle …), the farmers, in case the milk was bought, they also demanded their share of the money and they had no money to pay them.

They scrubbed the saucepans with soda and esparto, at the joints of the saucepan they had to pass it with a clean stick to remove the milk and the fat that remained deposited there, because otherwise the milk was cut

Old milkmaid license
Image extracted from Marichal's document (2006).

About the milk churn

“They scrubbed the saucepans with soda and esparto, at the joints of the saucepan they had to pass it with a clean stick to remove the milk and the fat that remained deposited there, because if not the milk was cut”.

“The milk was strained with a white, white cloth, the milk had to be very clean, then the ladies, in the houses, would also strain it.” «They scrubbed the pots very well with esparto grass and some toothpicks to pass them through the little slits. You had to put the pots in water and scrub very well with esparto grass and soap from the wheel or the lizard, everything had to be cleaned very well because the milk cuts with dirt ». «I did experience all this, everything was always very clean, the pots were only for milk, each thing had its use. The baskets also, those of milk were those of milk and those of fruit those of fruit (…), Those of milk were more chatitas … »

Milk scoops with customer’s name engraved:

The milk for the lords of the farms was not like that of the others, nor was it sold in the same way:

“The milk from the farms was all padlocked and with the name of the owner engraved.”

Sometimes, the corresponding milkmaid was the one that made the delivery, in others the bucket traveled alone in the bus perrera, the planter, or the truck … there was no possibility of loss because the owner’s name was engraved and any affront to a Cacique could be paid very expensively. (Marichal, 2006; 266).

“Vegetables and milk were brought to the rich in the mail buses, pots of milk came with their names. Then the trucks were in charge of passing through the farms. On Saturdays the fruits were sent to them along with the milk (…). They had double pots, so they put some empty ones and took the full ones with them.

Milk churn with the name of the owner: Eladia Machado.

The cessation of activity

Most of the milkwomen did not quit their jobs out of pleasure, but, once again, out of necessity. One of those cycles that make up existence was completed and, in the same way that this trade was created due to the shortages of the cities, other needs, those corresponding to the new times, were those that forced its extinction. It could not be otherwise, since the new industrial systems were moving at a different pace and the population demanded other services. Dairy plants began to collect milk from farmers in the late 1950s, early 1960s, last century. Some milkmaids continued to sell after this date, but it was already clandestinely.

“I continued until it was no longer possible, many continued in hiding, but the power plants were already collecting the milk and it was a danger because the fines were tremendous.” “In recent times I sold on the one hand and she (the milkmaid), on the other, no longer accompanied her. I made the journey on foot, along the road from Las Canteras to La Laguna, while she got off in a bus to deliver to the most remote places. The parishioners had a bitter life for me, they wanted me to be the milkmaid and not me because they thought I was cheating on them and making them feel bad (…), She had to go there from time to time to pass her hand and then she they were quiet for a while, but then they started again with the nonsense.

«I remember the last lady who sold here, her name was Gregaria La Risquera, she lived on the Camino Tornero. Her husband helped her to go down to Santa Cruz because he worked on the dock, they went down to Santa Cruz with the milk on the donkey ». “More or less in the year 1956 we stopped buying, the guards chased the milkmaids because that could no longer be done, when they found them they requisitioned their merchandise or threw their pots on the ground and emptied them all.” Of those milkmaids of yesteryear, little remains, they remain, with their memories, their experiences, their anecdotes … also their spirit of fighting women, work … fame, deserved or not.


Marichal, A. A. (2006). Lecheras: las circunstancias y la vida. Tenique: Revista de Cultura Popular Canaria, (7), 237-268 (s/f). Disponible en

Pérez, T. G. (2006). La mirada europea: huellas de mujeres canarias en los libros de viajes. Anroart Ediciones

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