Early Separators Helped the Cream Rise to the Top

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As raw milk is poured into the supply can, the electric-driven separator goes to work. Skim milk pours into the large milk can and cream discharges into the bucket.
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Chart touting the advantages of a cream separator.
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This drawing shows how milk runs into the bowl from the top center. As the discs spin, centrifugal force moves the denser skim milk to the outside and discharges it through the skim milk outlet. The less dense cream is guided by the cone-shaped intermediate discs up and out the cream outlet.
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A Royal Blue ball bearing cream separator as advertised in the 1930-1931 Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog.
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Cutaway view of the separating bowl of a typical cream separator. The shaft in the bottom center of the bowl spins the cream disc and the intermediate discs.

For thousands of years cream was separated by the slow and inefficient method of pouring raw milk into various containers and letting gravity move the less dense cream to the surface where it could be skimmed off.

In 1859, an obscure German brewmaster discovered he could easily separate cream by swiftly rotating a barrel of milk. But since the German was in the beer business instead of dairying, he didn’t pursue the idea.

During the 1860s, a Danish horse doctor named Jensen rigged up a vertical pole with a crosspiece at the top. He hung a pail of milk from each end of the crosspiece and contrived to whirl the whole contraption. After spinning the device for about a half hour, the Dane found thick cream on top of the milk in the pails.

In the 1870s, several European inventors worked on the problem of large-scale separation of cream from milk. A German engineer named Lefeldt perfected a machine consisting of a large tub filled with milk and spun by a steam engine at 800 rpm. Lefeldt’s machine took 15 to 20 minutes to fully separate the cream and was available in four sizes capable of handling 110, 220, 440 or 660 pounds of milk per hour. Another prominent maker of separators during that time was Neilson & Peterson, whose Danish-Weston machines were widely imported into the United States.

These large capacity machines were used primarily in large creameries and were expensive and slow. The small hand-powered continuous cream separator found on most dairy farms during the first half of the 20th century had yet to be thought of.

The small separator became possible in 1879, when Swedish engineer Gustaf de Laval perfected the “continuous centrifugal cream separator.” Before that, all cream separators had a tank that was filled with milk and spun to separate the cream. The cream was then skimmed off and the tank emptied of skim milk. After washing and refilling the tank with raw milk, the procedure was repeated.

In de Laval’s continuous flow machine, a small stream of raw milk flowed continuously into a large revolving bowl. The cream flowed constantly through one spout, while the skim milk exited through another.

During the mid-1880s, several cream separator manufacturers decided a small hand-operated machine would be practicable and useful in small dairies and on farms. Previously, dairy farmers had to haul their milk to a nearby creamery or railroad station where the cans were “put on the cars” for the trip to a more distant creamery. At the creamery, the milk was run through a large factory separator, the cream extracted and the skim milk put back into the cans and returned to the farmer.

This method required a daily trip to haul milk and much handling of heavy cans, while the skim milk returned to the farmer was frequently sour and of little value as feed for young stock.

American farmers, being the conservative lot they are, didn’t immediately embrace the new machines. In about 1896, Irv Moody, a large creamery owner in Nashua, Iowa, encouraged his milk suppliers to buy hand separators. Moody convinced the farmers of the advantages: They could separate cream while it was warm and fresh, the expense and trouble of hauling cream alone was a lot less than that of the bulky milk, the cream didn’t need to be hauled every day, and the resulting skim milk was fresh and good for feeding to their animals.

Soon, most dairy farms had cream separators, although the machines may not have been too enthusiastically received by farm women and girls. It usually fell to those ladies to do the work. I’m sure turning the crank of a cream separator got old in a hurry, and the machine must have been a bear to keep clean and sanitary.

In an account written in about 1930, J.C. McDowell says: “Well do I remember the excitement caused by the first cream separator shipped into my home county in central Wisconsin. Nobody in our neighborhood had yet seen one and there was much speculation as to how it worked.

“We were all acquainted with (how) the grain separator separated the wheat from the straw, and (how) the fanning mill separated weed seeds from the wheat, but we could not even imagine how a machine could separate cream from the milk.

“Finally (a neighbor) saw this separator at work and he explained its principles to us. He said that the separator was not made with sieves, as was the case (with the) fanning mill. He explained that the cream and skim milk were separated by means of whirling; that the whole milk was whirled very rapidly and the skim milk (being denser than the cream) passed to the outside of the circle, where it was removed by a spout, and that the cream (being less dense) collected at the center where it was removed by another spout. His explanation satisfied us and for a brief explanation in simple language, I think it was very good.”

Eventually, with the advent of small engines, a pulley was substituted for the hand crank and the farm wife’s lot was made a little easier. Later separators were mostly powered by electric motors.

De Laval Co. and several other independents, as well as most of the major farm equipment manufacturers, offered a cream separator, as did Sears, Roebuck & Co., Montgomery Ward & Co. and some other mail order houses.

Changes in the dairy industry, as well as more stringent government sanitation requirements, ended the usefulness of the small cream separator. Probably by the 1960s very few were still in use and they are rarely seen today except in antique shops, although small hand and electric separators are still available from Lehman’s Hardware in Kidron, Ohio.

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

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