Butter Churns: Collectible For Today’s Natural Food Fans

Farm to table eating and buying or making our food is growing in popularity daily! Antiques enthusiasts, though, have always appreciated the tools and methods of home made.

Butter started out as a farm product and wasn’t readily available in city homes until the 20th century. Until the late 19th century, butter was made slowly – daily or weekly – by hand in a variety of butter churns after the cows were milked. These churns were made of glass, wood or metal and they were for home or farm use, not commercial.

Today, these antique churns are lovely collectibles to enjoy or display in your home.

The earlier butter churns are the ones with which most people are familiar. It has a long pushing part (called a dasher) inserted in the bottom container that looks a lot like a small barrel. Because the constant pushing motion of churning the milk was tough work, crank-style handles were adapted to the design and a tabletop churn was developed.

Cylinder churns are a type of wooden tabletop churn that became very popular in the early 1900s. Originally, these sold for under $5, but today they sell for as much as several hundred dollars. One is featured in today’s column and is made of white cedar wood, with a carefully fitted lid, double dasher and crank.

Butter churns of glass also were developed in the early 1900s. Heavy glass jars were fitted with a churning mechanism made of iron and wood. These conveniently-sized butter churns are still seen today in antiques shops and make interesting decorations in today’s kitchens.

Butter making itself included several steps beyond the simple, yet work-intensive, process of churning. Carrot juice was often used to add color to butter, which is usually a pale yellow and differs depending on the cows and their eating habits.

After milk was churned, the resulting butter still needed to be worked and paddled to remove the excess water. Often done by hand, simply by working the butter in a large wooden bowl, the water removal process could be quickened by the use of a simple machine called a butter worker.

These old gadgets date to the early 1900s and look like a flat box, fitted with a corrugated wooden roller turned by a crank. After removing water, the butter was shaped into butter molds and stamped.

Wooden molds and stamps are interesting to collect. Usually showing a design of flowers, animals, fruit and such, some butter molds had initials. In early years, butter would be marked to show the farm or family that made it.

There were even small molds that shaped butter into the three-dimensional look of an animal or acorn, like a butterball. Stamps were usually made of hardwood, but some were produced in glass, pottery and aluminum.

Farmers’ wives would sell their homemade butter at a weekly market to earn household money. A mold or stamp was important to mark their products. Carved by a husband or a local craftsman, these molds made the butter look lovely and also identified it as hers, so that buyers could seek her butter again.

These molds are sought today. According to antiques experts, they are fast disappearing from most antiques markets.

Other curious ways in which butter was made include in a “piggy” churn that was made of tin and looked like a swine. It was suspended from a ceiling by hooks and swung back and forth. Dating to about 1875, this method was preceded by butter making in real pigskins, apparently one of the earliest methods of churning milk into butter where the butter maker stomped or walked on the skin.

Another butter making method that is amazing but practical is a method that dates to the 19th century. It seems that farmers would pour warm milk into a goatskin and hitch it to a horse to be bounced along while riding miles and miles until it was churned for use.

Butter churns are often classified as primitives in the antiques world because many of the early butter churns were made by hand and were not identical in form. Today, primitives are also commonly grouped with country collectibles. Both classifications are popular across the country with antiques enthusiasts.

For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at: zambitomaureen@hotmail.com or by writing in care of this newspaper.