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milkmaids' garlands


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A regular custom for May Day and following days in English towns from the 17th to early 19th centuries. The young women who served the townsfolk with milk would dress up in their finest clothes (borrowed or hired if necessary), dance in front of their customers' houses, and collect money from them and passers-by. Several milkmaids would often band together, and their entourage would include a musician and the emblem of the custom, the garland. In most illustrations, the ‘garland’ was a pyramid-shaped structure of polished metal utensils and vessels such as tankards and plate, the shinier the better (again borrowed or hired for the occasion), topped off with flowers and ribbons. The maid would carry the garland on her head, as she carried her milkpail the rest of the year, and at least some of them danced with the garland in situ. However, many sources show garlands grown too large and either carried on the head of an attendant male or even carried on poles between two men like a sedan chair. The milkmaids were also sometimes found in the company of the chimney sweeps, who had a similar May Day street custom, with a Jack-in-the-Green.

It is likely that in the earliest stages, the garland would simply have been the everyday milk-pail decorated with flowers and greenery to welcome the May. The milkmaids are first mentioned in the mid-17th century, although the references are brief and therefore ambiguous, such as Samuel Pepys in his Diary for 1 May 1667: ‘Thence to Westminster in the way meeting many milk-maids with their garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them’, which may easily refer simply to flowers, but the earliest illustration, from Tempest's Cryes of London (1685–8, reprinted in Judge, 1979: 4) shows the fancy plate and tankard construction already in being. The custom was sufficiently respectable to take place in the highest company: ‘On May-Day the Milk-Maids who serve the Court, danced Minuets and Rigadoons before the Royal Family, at St James's House, with great applause’ (Read's Weekly Journal, 5 May 1733, quoted in N&Q 1s:3 (1851), 367).

The milkmaids’ garland was still going strong in 1776, when Samuel Curwen, an American visitor, described meeting them in the street on May Day. But the custom had faded out by the early 19th century, leaving the May Day streets to the chimney sweeps. Hone also describes a different milkmaids' procession, seen in Westminster probably around the turn of the 19th century, or just before. The maid in question led a cow around the streets, both of them adorned with ribbons and flowers.

Judge, 1979;Hone, 1827: i. cols. 569–72;George L. Phillips, Folk-Lore 62 (1951), 383–7;Charles Phythian-Adams, in D. Fraser and A. Sutcliffe (eds.), The Pursuit of Urban History (1983), 83–104.


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