Coming Around Again

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De Laval #12
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De Laval
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Sam and Barbara StephensPins
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Electric separators
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Sam and Barbara StephensPins
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Potsdam Public MuseumDr. Hervey Thatcher
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Sam StephensCarl de Laval
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University of Wisconsin-MadisonDr. Stephen Babcock
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Historic HoustonGail Borden

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.

 Today, many cream separators are collectible. Sam Stephens has seen   some go for upwards of $1,500. ‘Condition is key,’ he says. ‘And it matters whether someone wants that one or not. Some (separators that used) old gas engines can bring $3,000, because General Electric collectors love those old engines.’

As collectible as the separators are themselves, Sam Stephens’ primary passion is the advertising surrounding the sale of them. Flipping through the book of memorabilia he authored with Mike Fournier and Robert Benoit, you can see that there’s a staggering variety. ‘I just love the artwork, ‘ Sam says. ‘I love seeing the children and the milkmaids in their Sunday dresses. It was all very expensive to produce.’

Some advertising attempted to move out of newspapers and magazines, making useful products designed mostly to carry the message of cream separators. ‘Sharpies got their name out with a songbook,’ Sam says, ‘and De Laval made match holders in the shape of a small separator. Those are common, but can still command a very high price.’

One of the places where collectors get together and trade information about their hobby is at the annual convention of the Cream Separator and Dairy Collectors’ Association. Sam started the organization 13 years ago with a small ad in Gas Engine magazine. He was surprised by the reaction, but glad. He says that he’s learned a lot just from meeting people through the CSDCA and through the Milk Route, the organization of milk bottle collectors. ‘By being involved with the Milk Route and the  Cream Separator and Dairy Collectors’ Association, we knew who had what. That’s how we made our book.’

Sam admits that his book is far from the last word that will be written on the subject.

‘Probably once a month, we’ll see something come up on eBay that we never knew existed,’ he says. ‘You never know what you’re missing, because every collector has something unique. The question of what’s missing is impossible to answer.’

Sam says that, if there is a current trend in collecting, it’s that tabletop separators seem to be taking off. ‘They’re easy to transport and don’t take up a whole lot of space. The De Laval Junior 1, 2, 3 and 4 are common, but still collectible right now.’

Sam Stephens can be reached by e-mail at or The book, Cream Separator Memorablilia can be purchased from the publisher, Benoit Publications. The address: 5645 Murray, Pierrefonds, Quebec, Canada H8ZIL6.

The Milk Men

It’s hard to overvalue the importance of a quality milk supply. There are historians, for example, who say that Gail Borden’s invention of the condensing process, and its subsequent use by the Union Army, could be, at least in part, credited for the Union’s victory over the Confederacy. And farmers who needed cash flow in the early 1900s often sustained their farms by selling butter.

Over the next few pages, we’ll introduce you to the men whose lives affected the way milk was produced in the past and still is today.

Dr. Hervey Thatcher is not well known outside of dairy circles, and yet, as the inventor of the milk bottle in 1886, he played an important role in the everyday lives of Americans.

Hervey Thatcher was born in Newport, N.H., Dec. 28, 1835. His life from an early point centered around his medical and pharmacy skills. Having obtained a medical degree, Thatcher eventually settled in Potsdam, N.Y., and opened a drug store, where he operated for more than thirty years. It was in Potsdam that Thatcher began to experiment in his pharmacy, creating a number of different inventions. The first, in 1860, was Thatcher’s Orange Butter color. Then, in 1886, Dr. Thatcher took a partner, H.P. Bamhart, and began to market his next invention: the glass milk bottle.

Thatcher didn’t stop there. His Sugar of Milk Baking Powder came next, and was a huge success, winning a prize at the World Fair in Chicago. Finally, Dr. Thatcher gave up his store and gave himself completely to producing and marketing his inventions.

An unfortunate fire wiped out his factory, and Dr. Thatcher’s loss was over $100,000. His last few years were spent quietly in a little office in a woodworking plant, where he made his home. He continued to market his baking powder and other inventions up until his death in 1925.

Carl de Laval was born Carl Gustaf Patrik de Laval, in Dalecarlia province, Sweden, in 1845. Although he obtained 92 patents and founded 37 companies in his lifetime, to the dairy men of America, he will always be known as the man who invented the cream separator.

Carl showed an inventive spirit even as a child, and was always ahead in his studies. His talent lay in the area of machinery. A degree in engineering, and later a Ph. D. were a given for this man, fascinated as he was by technical workings. In 1872, working for Kloster Steel Works, de Laval invented his first cream separator. His separator worked on the principal of centrifugal force, as separators still do today, using a spinning motion to separate the  heavier milk fluid from the lighter-weight cream. Later, he applied this same principal to the manufacture of glass bottles. In 1877, de Laval and his partner, Oscar Lamm, Jr. created a company named AB Separator. The company quickly became a world-wide enterprise, branching into yeast and oil separators as well.

de Laval’s second most famous invention is probably the operational steam turbine. By 1896, he was able to operate an entire power plant using his turbines.

Carl de Laval died Feb. 2, 1913, in Stockholm, Sweden. The epitaph on his memorial reads ‘The man of high speeds.’

Dr. Stephen Babcock became the hero of the dairy farmer when he developed and then donated the first simple method for measuring the butterfat content in milk. Called the Babcock test, it was inexpensive, easy, and took only ten minutes to complete. Babcock refused to patent the method or the apparatus used to complete the test.

Stephen Moulton Babcock was born Oct. 22, 1843 near Bridgewater, N.Y. He earned degrees in the U.S. as well as Germany, where he held a Ph.D. His vocations were many in the early years, but always had two common bonds: teaching and agricultural research. Eventually, he joined the University of Wisconsin as a professor and agricultural research chemist. He remained at the university for the next 43 years, and it was in this laboratory that he created the 1 Babcock test.

Babcock was known through his life as a person who was obsessed with detail. When the university urged him to release a milk test method that had worked on 29 out of 30 cows at the university farm, he refused. The test, he replied, would not go out with his name on it until it was perfect. It took only a few more weeks before he  was able to make that claim.      

The Babcock test, introduced in 1890, changed the dairy business by preventing milk adulteration, resulting in fairer pay to dairy farmers, and stimulated dairy production across America.

Gail Borden was a true inventor. Although he eventually became famous for the invention of condensed milk, his failed inventions were numerous, the mark of a truly innovative thinker. Born in 1801 in New York, he settled in Texas in about 1829. Borden held many positions in the fledgling state, from customs agent, to surveyor, to real estate agent.

A story of one of Borden’s failed experiments tells of his ‘terraqueous wagon,’ designed to move on land or sea with the use of sails. His first test was cut short, as the speed of the thing frightened his passengers. The second test proved even more disastrous, ending with the wagon sinking 50 yards from shore. Where was Borden? ‘Drowned, I do most sincerely hope,’ one of the passengers said.

He was not drowned, however, and lived on to become fascinated with the process of condensation. He first tried condensing meat, the result being an unpalatable puck-like biscuit. Later, he turned his efforts to the dairy industry and began experimenting with milk condensation. Finally, in 1865, he successfully created condensed milk. Success was not secure however: Two failed plants in Connecticut almost wiped out Borden’s resources. He began again, and the tragedy of the Civil War created a need for condensed milk that the Borden company (still in operation today) was able to meet.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
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