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OCTOBER
2000 ISSUE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Additional
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Butter Mold
Multiple Pattern
style

Butter Mold
1 Piece Box type


Butter Mold
1/2-lb and
1-lb Plunger
cup style

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By Alice Ross

We like to say that women’s work with food was so respected that it was celebrated with
decoration, and then we wonder if we aren’t being historically inaccurate. Perhaps we have introduced a modern overlay of romance and sentiment onto what was really a practical utensil. In the case of butter molds, I suspect both are correct! More than likely, their decorative and pragmatic functions have overlapped, the earliest formsh1.gif (39950 bytes) serving the esthetic needs of more privileged tables, and the more recent adaptations working for the commercial world. What began as primitive, hand-carved folk art became mass-produced adaptations of wood, metal and glass.

Their narrative is revealed in their forms. The earliest were often paddle-shapes with bas relief carvings to be pressed onto the surface of a mound of butter. These evolved into what was later called prints, or stamps. The earliest molds that combined a receptacle with carved inside h13.gif (77879 bytes) surfaces were often one piece and rectangular. They provided for molding the top surface and the sides as well, and determined the size and shape of the butter mound itself. Growing artisanship and the mechanization of the lathe made possible the thin-sided round molds with separate decorative plungers. And with growing commercial dairying and marketing, box molds of carefully determined sizes measured out pound bricks identifying the dairyman. In all cases theyh11.gif (66017 bytes) followed the ancient and honorable tradition of hand-carved wooden molds used to impress an ornamental pattern on food. They were made in all the prosperous dairying regions of northern Europe, and used remarkably similar folk motifs. Most popular seem to have been the farm-related themes of animals (especially cows), fruits, vegetables, grains, flowers and the ancient symbols of suns and stars. They came to America in the minds and hands of immigrants from Britain, the Low Countries, France, Scandinavia and even Russia. And their local ethnic differences appear with such characteristic themes as Pennsylvania tulips and hearts, Scottish thistles, Canadian bent hearts, or patriotic American eagles and pineapples. Some sources have found that Pennsylvania motifs were more symmetrical; and that New England designs tended to be more asymmetrical. In any case, they appear to be country cousins of the intricate gingerbread, lebkuchen, and springerle cookie boards, albeit with appropriately different subject matter; their smaller size and the effects of water have influenced and softened their designs. There is sometimes intriguing overlapping. Reminiscent of springerle molds, h4.gif (59074 bytes) some butter molds have taken the form of hinged boxes whose ornamenting square plunger was divided into a grid of all-different miniature designs. Presumably, once printed, the butter was cut into individual butter pats. 

One cannot talk about butter molds without discussing butter, one of the chief and most prized fats of northern Europe. Always in demand for the table, for fine baking and for saucing, it was one of the chief cash crops of good farms, and in many cases a primary means by which a farm wife could add to her family’s cash economy. (Who says women are new to the job market!) Its best production depended on the breeds of dairy cows producing milk with high butter fat content—among them English Guernsey's and Jerseys. References to dairying, churning, etc. have appeared in early domestic guides. Gervaise Markham [1615] attended carefully to all aspects of butter, its preparation, preservation, and sale and took care to recommend that housewives do their churning on Tuesdays and Fridays for Wednesday and Saturday markets. Considering that he was writing for middle and upper middle class women, this must have been a consequential activity. And yet, even though he advised on marketing and to long-term preserving techniques, he made no mention of butter molds. Nor did Richard Bradley in his long and detailed discourse on butter making [1736].

The early evidence of seventeenth-century butter molds suggest another scene entirely. They were sometimes quite expensive, limited to decorating the tables of wealthy homes, and presumably were artfullyh12.gif (94050 bytes) carved by hand. One such appeared in a 1636 English inventory valued at two pounds, quite a sum for that period. Similar early inventory evidence tells us of comparable eighteenth-century German butter molds. At such value they provided a mark of gentility and status to the privileged table.

And here the story blurs. Some late seventeenth-century molds that have survived in private collections are more primitive in execution and design, and do not seem to warrant the value indicated above. Were there two functions of these molds even then? By the early eighteenth-century, butter molds were becoming more common in both European dairying countries and the American colonies.

In America, butter molding became popularized with the growth of material culture. Still hand-carved at the beginning of theh8.gif (43158 bytes) nineteenth-century, the cup mold was often lathe-turned while the plunger pattern was shaped by hand. By the end of the nineteenth-century molds were mass produced commercially, the slender cases still lathe cut and the decorated wooden ends steamed and stamped mechanically. Lowered costs made them readily available, and they were offered through trade catalogues at modesth7.gif (45830 bytes) prices. Mace & Co. [1883], for example, offered a wheat print [stamp] in graduated sizes from 2" diameter to 4½" diameter, starting at 99 cents a dozen. Its acorn butter molds (a formed cup with a decorated plunger), in sizes from one ounce to one pound, sold at $1.80 to $6.25 a dozen.

In 1913, Henry J. Fink’s catalog of woodenware was still listing "Butter Moulds, Hardwood, Assorted Designs" in the traditional cup and plunger design, and showed a pine tree mold as an example. And it also offered a dovetailed rectangular box mold with a cover and plunger, apparently for h3.gif (35379 bytes) measuring and forming one pound bricks of butter quickly. Sometimes these late box prints intended for use in a commercial dairy were patterned with the name or identifying marks of the dairy. As one could buy butter cut from a tub at this time—it is likely that molded butter maintained its original sign of status and highh2.gif (39809 bytes) quality. The tradition continued to be useful.

And as another innovation, the long tradition of carved wood was adapted to glass, which had clear advantages in sanitation, and a decoration that would not be damaged by knives, paddles or water. 

Now it is hard to know whether butter molds and prints were more interesting to the commercial needs of farm wives or to the home decorating spirit of urban housewives. In either case, today one can h5.gif (52058 bytes) continue the custom with handsome reproductions for far less than the cost of original antiques. As there are so many new carvings on the market today, keep in mind when shopping for molds that one sign of age is the blurry and softened effect on the wood carving caused by repeated soaking and washing. Crisp new edges are a dead giveaway that you are holding a new reproduction.

If you want to try it yourself, the trick in a successful casting is to first soak and chill the mold. Then, after packing the butter in, refrigerate until firm, and then pop out onto a plate. If you want to make your own butter to match the handsome form, all you need is fresh whipping cream. Whisk or beat past the whipped cream stage until the butterfat forms firm yellow lumps and separates from the remaining buttermilk. (Save the buttermilk: let it sit out at room temperature overnight to culture, and either drink it or use it in cooking.) Paddle and press the butter in several washes of cold water until there are no traces of buttermilk left. Salt if desired. Pack into soaked and chilled wooden molds, refrigerate to harden and then un-mold. 

Serve to your most honored guests!

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Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is aross@binome.com. Her web site is www.li.net/~aross
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