A Short History of Making Butter

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Butter churns boosted bottom line on the farm.


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Today I was making a sandwich for lunch. Upon opening the butter dish I found a neat, quarter-pound stick of store-bought butter, pure and good-tasting. It wasn't always that easy.

The milk of most mammals contains a mixture of fats, proteins, sugars, vitamins and minerals suspended in water. The water is denser than the fats. If whole milk is allowed to sit for a time, the fat globules, in the form of cream, will rise to the surface where they can be skimmed off. The thin fluid that remains after the cream is removed is called skim milk, and it was once fed to calves and pigs. Today it's fed to diet-conscious humans.

When a quantity of cream or whole milk is agitated, the yellowish fat globules join to form a solid mass of butter. Historians speculate that butter was discovered when some desert nomad threw a goatskin full of camel milk on the back of that same camel and lurched off across the desert. When he arrived at his destination, he was astonished to find a congealed mass of what we now call butter in the skin. Evidence of butter was found in King Tut's tomb and it is mentioned several times in the Old Testament.

Probably from the beginning of dairy husbandry, people who milked cows set aside part of the milk in containers while they waited for the cream to rise to the surface. The process could take 12 to 36 hours and, with no refrigeration, the cream and milk frequently soured by the time it was finished. The resulting cream was not only thin and often sour, but also could pick up objectionable tastes and odors. Meanwhile, the soured skim milk wasn't much good as feed for young stock. Although cream needs to be "ripened," or slightly sour, in order to make good butter, that made from tainted or overly sour cream was inferior in taste and often smelled bad, bringing much lower market prices.

Dairy work consisted of milking, and making cream, butter and cheese. Women traditionally did that work in Europe, and the practice was often followed in the New World as well. Even if women didn't always do the milking on U.S. farms, they were usually responsible for separating cream and churning butter.

Of course, there was more to making butter than churning. It had to be rinsed several times to remove all the buttermilk. Then it was lightly salted and worked (or kneaded) to evenly distribute the salt, remove excess water and make the texture smooth. The butter was then ready to pack into a container.

During the 19th century, many farm wives supplemented farm income by selling butter. They churned every day or so, or whenever enough cream had accumulated. The butter was stored, layer upon layer, in a wooden tub kept in a cool cellar until it could be taken to a nearby country store. As can be imagined, the quality of the layers varied widely.

When "goin' to town" day arrived, the farmer's wife put on her hat, loaded the tub of butter into the wagon or buggy and set off. At the country store, she presented the butter to the storekeeper, who assigned a value.

Country storekeepers in those days were a shrewd lot, and they had to be to keep ahead of their equally shrewd customers. Our man was as canny as anyone and knew that the bottom layers might be bad or that the good wife may have mixed in a quantity of lard in order to fill the tub. So, before giving the woman a price for her butter, he tested it.

Using a butter borer, which he pushed through the layers to the bottom of the tub, the grocer extracted a core of butter. The test consisted of a cautious sniff or two, along with a quick lick of the tongue along the length of the sample. The column of butter was then replaced in its hole, the borer withdrawn and the top smoothed with a finger (this may not have been standard practice, but it did happen).

Once a value for the butter was agreed upon, the farm wife could take the cash, although many merchants issued tokens for future use at the store. More often than not, the lady "traded out" her butter, receiving needed items in return.

The story is told of the farmer's wife who brought in some chickens and a tub of butter to trade for a list of items she needed. She gave the store clerk the list to fill and proceeded to look over some new dress goods that had just arrived. On her list was "1 roll of butter." As she returned to the counter, she saw the clerk reach for the tub of butter she had just brought in. Quickly she cried, "Oh, I don't want any of that - I want some good butter!"

During the late 1800s, creameries began to process local milk into butter and cheese. Butter then became known as either "dairy butter" (made on the farm) or "creamery butter" (produced in a creamery).

Beginning in about 1890, parchment paper was used to wrap 1-pound rectangular blocks of butter. Early in the 20th century, as the creamery industry became more and more mechanized, cardboard cartons came into use.

So, that's all I know about butter. Now let me enjoy my sandwich (my wife doesn't understand why anyone would need butter on a sandwich, but any time I eat a slice of bread, it must be coated with the stuff).

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@att.net