Museum Talk

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

In the kitchen area of the Buffalo Island Museum are two antique butter molds. They were donated by Kaye Wallace and Lola Brown. Seeing the antique items that women of yesteryear used in their daily life continues to amaze me. They milked the cow, strained the milk and made their own butter.

Antique butter molds on display at the BI Museum.

These are two different types of butter molds. One is a small box in which the butter was packed. It has a plunger that will help release the butter when it has cooled. The other is a circular shaped mold with a handle that has a flower design. The butter is packed in the mold and when released, the flower design will show on top of the butter. This type of butter mold is more collectible today.

Butter molds were first used centuries ago in Northern Europe. Today, most of the oldest butter molds found in museums date to the mid-18th century Europe and North America. It was in the 19th century that commercial dairies first appeared and the butter molds became mass produced by machines. They were more plentiful and could be found in the local country store. The 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog lists butter molds for 23 to 26 cents. Butter molds came in half-pound, pound and two pound sizes. Butter was sold in most country stores, and having an accurate weight was important. If a customer paid for one pound of butter, he expected to get a pound. But there were dishonest merchants. The problem was so bad that in 1893, California passed a law making it a misdemeanor for not selling the full weight of butter.

But it is the early butter molds that are wanted by the avid collector. These butter molds had traditional simple designs. It is believed that these molds were carved by amateurs such as the head of the household or a neighbor that could carve. Woodcarving was very popular during the 18th and 19th centuries and there were many amateur woodcarvers with a great bit of skill. They were mostly made from soft pine, poplar or maple wood. It is very difficult to determine the age of a butter mold. It was not a common practice to carve the date on the mold. One of the most likely signs of age is the type of design that has been carved. The most traditional folk symbols such as a rooster, heart or tulip tend to be the oldest butter molds.

Although I remember how great my grandmother's fresh butter tasted, I am still very happy to find my butter on the grocery store shelf.

Buffalo Island Museum is closed during the winter months. Visit the museum's Facebook page for more information.