Like Buttah’ Churns
by Jessica Kosinski
When it comes to tools of the trade in the kitchen, few are more iconic than the butter churn. Today butter churns are mostly decorative. They are still used on some farms, and especially by the Amish, but the majority of Americans are used to buying their butter at grocery stores. Nevertheless, butter churns have a history that is almost as rich as some of the butter they have produced. Let’s take a peek at how butter churns have evolved throughout the years and churn out some fun facts along the way.
The Earliest Churns Were Most Likely Dash or Plunge Churns
When most people think of an old-fashioned butter churn, they tend to think of a tall, thin container usually made of wood. Earthenware models were also common in certain regions and during certain time periods. The container came with a long stick with a flat piece on the bottom. It looked much like a flat plunger, but was technically called a “dasher” in many places, including Europe.
In Europe this method was popular in the 1700s and 1800s. In the United States, some farms used the technique in the 1900s as well. The process was simple. The cows were milked and the milk was “set up” in shallow dishes. It would sit there for several hours until the cream started to separate out. Once that happened, it was skimmed off and placed in the churn. Someone would then have to push the dasher (plunger) up and down slowly for a prolonged period of time until butter was formed.
Plunge/dash butter churns, although popular in what we consider modern history, date back much further than the 1700s. There is some evidence indicating that the process may have been used as much as 1,400 years or more ago.
The Barrel Churn Was Another Churning Innovation
In 1700s Europe there was a movement to make butter churning easier, faster, and more hygienic. That led to the creation of the barrel churn, which is exactly what it sounds like. It is a wooden barrel, generally on its side, with a crank attached to one side. Some of the early barrel churns were designed to turn all the way around and had paddles inside that would move the butter as the barrel turned. Others were designed to simply rock back and forth. A similar version was called a box churn.
While barrel churns were often used on large dairy farms, churns with paddles were also taking the place of plunge churns in homes around Europe, and eventually North America. They were simply called paddle churns. Generally, they were shaped like a box and had a handle on the side or the top. The operator would just turn the crank, which took less effort than plunging an old-fashioned dash churn.
While the shape of in-home paddle churns didn’t change a lot over the years, the materials did. Some of them were wooden, just like many dash churns. Others were made of metal. Then came glass churns, known as Dazey churns, which were excellent because people could see the butter as they were churning it.
Novelty Butter Churns and Unusual Churning Techniques
Although those are the most popular types of butter churns, people have tried throughout the centuries to design other models that made the process easier or more fun. One of the most popular examples was the churn invented by a man named Alfred Clark, who connected a butter churn to a rocking chair, making it so the butter would be produced as someone was rocking in the chair. However, the design never really caught on.
People have also developed unusual butter churning techniques and habits throughout the centuries. The most common is the “churn song.” Many cultures and individuals created their own churn songs for two reasons. The first was to keep themselves busy and make an otherwise boring task fun. The second was as a means of timing the process. By the time the song was sung a certain number of times, the butter would most likely be ready.
Today there are people who collect butter churns in general and others who collect specific types of churns. The dash/plunge churns are often the oldest. Many of them can be worth quite a lot of money. They also look nice in homes or businesses that are designed to have a “country” feel. The same is true of stoneware or earthenware churns, which often have decorative designs on the front. In fact, an antique Alexis Stoneware Mfg Co butter churn from the 1800s recently sold for $1,665.00 on eBay.
Regardless of what kind of butter churn you are interested in, the main things to consider are age and condition. Scuffs, cracks, missing pieces, or other defects make the monetary value much lower. Although, even a damaged churn may still have a lot of decorative or historical value.
Another thing to consider is that some sellers combine parts from different churns to make one decorative churn. That is especially common with dash-style churns. So, be aware that the churn you are looking at may not have all original parts.
Where to Buy Butter Churns
The best places to buy butter churns are at antiques shops and flea markets because many churns are heavy and easily broken. Not only can you often find good deals at local venues, but you can avoid having to pay shipping charges or worry about the churns breaking during shipment. You can also inspect churns for existing damage in person before you choose to buy them when you purchase them locally. However, if you are looking for a very specific churn, such as one made by a certain manufacturer, the Internet is also a great resource.