De Laval #12
Fifteen years ago, Sam Stephens had no idea what he was getting himself into. He was working for the Sharpies (pronounced SHARP-less) company, when one of the company's servicemen offered him a Sears tabletop cream separator. 'I'd always liked antiques and old things, so I bought it,' he remembers.
Today, Sam Stephens is at the center of a small core of cream separator aficionados. He's the co-author of a book on cream separator advertising memorabilia, the founder and owner of a museum dedicated to them, the owner of more than a hundred separators and 200-plus advertising 'booklets, trinkets, gadgets and gizmos.'
'I just really like the beauty of the old machines, the painting, the scrollwork and the decals,' he says, and even non-collectors would have to admit there's something to what he says. There is something sculptural about cream separators and manufacturers did go to some lengths to enhance their products' beauty. This made the items much less an eyesore as they took up space in farm kitchens around the world, awaiting use. (For comparison, consider a recent blender or food processor's utilitarian squatness with the more graceful angles and arcs of the cream separators on these pages.)
Carl de Laval invented the centrifugal process of separating cream from milk in 1879. The process involved turning a hand crank (later turned by motors) until the effect of centrifugal force caused by the spinning forcibly separated the cream, raising it to a drain while it spun. Then the milk would be drained through the bottom and the cream would be leeched off through a higher spout. Before this process, the only method farmers had to separate milk and cream was to simply allow the milk to sit until the cream rose to the top and then skim it off.
There were several problems with this method. First, it was inefficient. Skimming left quite a bit of cream behind in the milk. Second, it was unhealthy. Letting milk sit in shallow bowls in 'spring houses' for the time needed for the cream to rise exposed it to unhealthy amounts of bacteria.
De Laval's separators solved both of those problems. They drastically reduced the 'wasted cream' left behind and the much faster method of separating allowed dairy producers of all means to get cream from milk, while exposing it to the elements for a very short time. It also decreased the loads that farmers had to haul into town to sell.
The separators also allowed farmers to make money year 'round. Farmers could use their separators to get cream and then churn it into butter, for which they could get as much as 30-40 cents a pound in the early part of the 1900s. It is likely that the agricultural depression of the 1920s might have been even worse if farm families didn't have butter sales as a means to pull them through the lean times.
Many families did have those means, however. In 1903 alone, the previously mentioned Sharpies company, makers of cream separators themselves, shipped 60,000 units.
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