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Butter Churns

Updated: May 12, 2023

Excerpted from The Chronicle, Vol. II, No. 10, June 1939

By William S. Sprague

A churn has been defined as "a ves­sel in which milk or cream is agitated to induce the separation of the oily globules from the other portions" (B). Herodotus (circa 484), writing of the Scythians, says: "These people pour the milk of their mares into wooden vessels, cause it to be violently stirred or shaken by their blind slaves, and separate the part that arises to the sur­face, as they consider it more valuable and more delicious than that which is collected below it" (B). This evident­ly refers to butter, but there is not even an implication that the "wooden vessels" were equipped with anything in the nature of a mechanical device to adapt them to this purpose. The Book of Job contains the statement, "Surely the churning of milk bringeth forth butter," but in this connection it must be borne in mind that the word rendered churning may be just as cor­rectly rendered pressing (B) and here again we find no evidence of the use of any specialized machine or imple­ment. It has been stated that churns were mentioned in American inven­tories of the 17th century (A), though what type these were we can only guess. We show here a few early ex­amples, obviously made by hand, all of which were found in New England, except that shown in Fig. 2, which came from Pennsylvania. Inasmuch as butter churning in the home was universal in this country up to 1850, nearly so up to 1880 (F), and has persisted to some extent down to the present day, and considering that, at least as far back as 1840, churns were being turned out in large quantities by factories and shops, it would be a her­culean and probably impossible task to describe or even list the multitude of ingenious devices which were evolved during the period for this purpose.

The Plunge or Up-and-down Churn (Fig. 1 B). In 1859, this was described as "that which is most commonly in use, and is very ancient" (C). "It requires some skill to churn properly with the common plunge churn; a few irregu­lar strokes have been known to injure the butter" (C). We find it specif­ically referred to in 1826 (D). In the illustration, the dasher is lying beside the receptacle for the milk. This par­ticular example has a somewhat un­usual feature in the wooden cup. which is fitted into the hole through which the dasher handle passes, to catch whatever milk might splash through this hole. The receptacle for the milk was often of earthenware in­stead of wood.

The Wig-wag Churn (Fig. 1 A). In the illustration, the dasher has been withdrawn from and stood upon the milk reservoir. When the dasher is in place, it is held by an iron pivot, running through the handle and two holes in the top of the receptacle for the milk, so that the perforated slab of wood just clears the bottom of the latter, and the churning was done by moving the handle back and forth, instead of up and down. Judging by the scarcity of these, they were not particularly popular. We have no way of dating them, except that the work on those we have seen is characteristic of the early 19th century.

The Pump Churn (Figs. 2 and 3). We find reference to this as early as 1814 (E). The author says: "Those who make use of a pump -churn, should endeavour to keep up a regular motion of the machine; and by no means admit any person to assist them unless from absolute necessity; for, if the churning be irregularly performed, the butter will in winter go back?; and, if the agitation be more quick and vio­lent in summer, it will cause the butter to ferment, and thus to acquire a very disagreeable flavor." It will be ob­served that the two examples shown differ, in that one (Fig. 2) has the dasher located between the hand hold and the bearing point of the handle, and that on the other (Fig. 3), the dasher is attached on the other side of this bearing point. The dasher of the pump churn is naturally similar in form to that of the plunge churn.

The Barrel or Turning Churn (Fig.4). This is also referred to in an 1814 publication (E), and the example shown is constructed with hand-made nails, typical of that period and the previous century. ''This consists of a barrel, having inside of it a number of projecting boards, dividing it into compartments, but each having a num­ber of perforations. The barrel is set up on a frame, and turned round by means of a handle; and thus the neces­sary agitation is performed. If upon a very large scale, horse power may be required to turn the barrel churn" (G). ''Where there are many cows, a barrel-chum is preferred" (E). "One advantage of the barrel-chum is, that it requires no skill to work it" (C).

The Rocker or Cradle Churn (Fig. 5). The receptacle for the milk is bi­sected by an interior partition, per­forated with either holes or slits, through which the milk had to pour, as "the cradle was rocked," having the same effect as the dashers of other churns. Perhaps the idea was that the busy housewife could be performing some other task with her hands, the while she kept the churn in motion with her foot. Here again, although we have seen no examples which we would date earlier than about 1830, their present scarcity is such as to in­dicate that they never came into wide­spread use.

(Fig. 6) This photograph was procured from the late Warren W. Creamer, of Waldoboro, Maine. It is the only specimen of this type which has come to our notice, and we cannot give it a name or even an approximate date, al­though the ingenious principle on which it worked is quite evident.

AUTHORITIES (A) History of Agriculture in the North­ern United States, Carnegie Institute publi­cations No. 358, p. 34. (B) American Me­chanical Dictionary, by Edward H. Knight (New York, 1874) p. 549. (C) American Family Encyclopedia, Webster & Parkes, New York, 1859, p. 1133. (D) Farmer's Mechanics and Manufacturer's Magazine, New York, 1826, Vol. I, page 122. (E) American Artists' Manual, by James Cut­bush, Philadelphia, 1814, see "Churn." (F) The Economic History of the United States, by Ernest L. Bogart. New York, 1908, page 243-78. (G) Book of Trades, Griffin & Co., Glasgow, 1848, page 45.


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