Few devices had more direct impact on family farms than those developed to manipulate milk. Machines built to milk cows, separate cream and turn it into marketable butter helped many families eke out a living on the land. Today, cream separators and butter churns are highly collectible, but few outside the hobby understand how those handy farm devices were first developed.
Rising to the top
Before the widespread use of cream separators, numerous methods were used to remove butterfat from whole milk. The oldest way was to set the milk in crocks or tin pans in a cool place and wait patiently for the cream to rise to the surface. A later method involved placing milk in tall, narrow cans submerged in cool, running water or a vat of ice water until the cream rose to the top. A third method involved separating the cream, or a portion of it, by diluting the whole milk with a large quantity of cold water.
Many farmers simply loaded their wagons with cans of warm milk and headed to the railroad station, where it was shipped to wholesale customers. Others hauled raw milk to a nearby creamery to be skimmed by a power separator. Then farmers usually sold the butterfat to the creamery and hauled the skimmed milk back to the farm where it was fed to chickens, calves, pigs and other livestock as a highly nutritional food, rich in sugar, protein and other bone- and muscle-building ingredients.
Unlike tractors and other farm machinery, European engineers beat American inventors to the market with the earliest mechanical cream separators during the 1870s. The German-made Lefeldt separator was introduced in 1877, and Dr. De Laval’s highly successful machine followed in 1878.
The Iowa Dairy Separator Co. – the first of several Waterloo-based manufacturers – began producing its milk-skimming machine in the early 1880s. It was designed around a series of hard-to-clean internal discs, as were most American-made cream separators manufactured before World War I. One exception was the popular Sharpies brand separator, a simple tubular design dating back to the 1880s.
The first cream separators were designed for large dairy operations, not for home use – and they were expensive. The Backstrom, an 800-pound-per-hour separator made in 1888, sold for $195, which was the equivalent of three months’ farm wages.
The market for this newfangled method of getting the cream out of milk was huge – so big in fact that Sears, Roebuck & Co. devoted the first seven pages of its 1908 catalog to a dramatic sales pitch that was difficult to ignore. Sears touted its $26.30 price tag for a 250-pound-capacity machine as ‘$44 cheaper than our competitor’s offer.’
Sears also reminded farmers that a third of their workday was spent feeding, herding and milking cows, and that the only real profit came from butter. If a third of the butter was lost through improper cream recovery, Sears asserted, the farmer made no money.
At peak production in 1918, nearly 200,000 hand-cranked separators a year were coming off the production lines of 30 American factories. At the forefront were popular manufacturers such as Mellote Co., Waterloo Co., Peerless Co., Sharpies Co., International Harvester Co., Massey-Harris Co., B.F. Avery Co. and the Cockshutt Plow Co. With so much demand for the products, many of the big farm implement firms naturally wanted in on the action.
By the late 1920s, a shiny new cream separator could be found on nearly every farm. Farm wives used the cream to make butter for home use and sold or traded surplus cream to the local store keeper. Farm-fresh butter was a valuable commodity, which, combined with the proceeds from hen house production, furnished many farm families with yearly cash for new shoes and school clothes.
Twenty-five years ago – when I tried to make a living as an antique dealer – I could pick up a van-load of hand-cranked cream separators for as little as $200.I usually sold them within a week or so to gift shops (as flowerpots) or to goat herders (to separate their cream). The rusty ‘decorator’-quality machines brought about $50, and a clean, working model might fetch $100 or more. Tabletop separators were the best sellers because the ‘country kitchen’ decorating motif was just catching on.
Today, those same separators bring four or five times the money. A comparative rarity, such as an early De Laval Alpha No. 1 Baby Separator, could fetch $600 to $1,000 from a dairy equipment collector. A more common 1928 De Laval machine might cost between $250 and $450 in good condition.
Most other brands of pre-war, vintage U.S. and Canadian machines that are offered for sale on eBay seem to fall in the same price range. Rusty survivors of the 1940s rarely bring more than $100 at country junk shops. Toy separators, however, are extremely collectible. A tiny cast iron McCormick-Deering model with moving parts recently sold for more than $200.
Making butter from the cream
Some experts estimate that at least 6,000 versions of the butter churn have been invented since the goatskin device used in Biblical days. The U.S. market was flooded with butter churns of every size and shape at the conclusion of the Civil War, from wooden models that resembled small barrels to stoneware and, later, glass churns. Some were home-made like the butter they produced, while others were industrial products.
Among the most collectible churns available today are the glass-bottomed variety mass-produced in the early 1900s for use on family farms. The most rare of this type is the 1-quart Dazey No. 10, which has brought as much as $1,000 at auction. The more-common, larger sizes sell for $85 to $150 in antique shops today.
Other tools for making homemade butter could be ordered from Sears and other companies or purchased from the local hardware store. Among them were a seemingly endless array of butter boxes, carriers, crocks, cutters, molds, stamps, paddles, prints and tabletop butter workers. Butter molds made the final product both attractive and easy to store and use. Regardless of the method used to make butter, the homemade product brought needed money to cash-poor farms across America.
Look Ma, no hands!
Cow milkers – or milking machines – aren’t exactly collectible, but they have an interesting history, as well. The first models, which appeared between 1865 and 1870, promised to end one of the most irksome of all farm chores: milking cows by hand.
One early manufacturer claimed:
Our new milking machines will fill a 14-quart pail in seven minutes flat. The milk gathers no impurities, as in the usual method of handling the teats and udders, in which numerous scales of skin, hair and other cow-flavored matter drop into the milk pail. And the relief from exertion of the wrists and arms is most welcome to the milker.
William Crozier, of Long Island, N.Y., introduced a Scottish-made milking machine to the American market in 1877, which he claimed had been used in a noted Scotch dairy for eight years. It consisted of four slender metal probes, which were inserted into the teats. To these tubes of pure silver were attached four slightly larger rubber hoses that terminated in one spout just below the rim of an open milk pail. No suction apparatus was attached. Apparently, it was purely a gravity-flow device. After milking, the manufacturer recommended that the tubes be soaked in a pail of cold water before being used again.
The editor of American Agricultural wrote in 1878 that he’d examined 20 different milking devices and that all produced some degree of unfavorable results – some even drew blood from the cows. Still, a market of at least a million sore-armed laborers existed, begging for relief. These farmers were rising before dawn to spend several cold hours in the milk barn, only to repeat the same chore again that evening. The nation’s 12 million milk cows had to be milked twice a day, seven days a week. Some say that the unending drudgery drove many an innocent country boy into bootlegging, factory work in the city or an early military career.
Temporary relief came in the 1880s when a vacuum hand pump and covered jar were added to the previously invented gravity-flow udder attachments. The Mehring Co.’s foot-powered milker, invented in 1891, resembled a rowing machine and could milk two cows at once. The first practical milking machine wasn’t introduced until about 1916.
Single-cylinder gasoline engines powered a variety of these successful vacuum-pump milkers until electricity took over in the 1930s. A 1947 IH pamphlet crowed that, ‘Milkers have eliminated the hand milking chore on many American farms. Modern milking machines extract the milk from cows’ udders with a gentle massaging action.’
With automatic milking machines, mechanical cream separators and numerous devices to turn cream into butter, the old ways of manipulating milk came to an end on most farms. Today, those devices are more than relics of days gone by. They’re fun to collect and educational, too.
– Ronald S. Barlow has published eight books on antiques and the tools of early trades. His latest book, 300 Years of Farm Implements and Machinery, 1630-1930, is available from Farm Collector books. See the book ad on page 42.