Butter is one of the oldest foods, dating back to 6500 BC. Legend says that butter was first discovered when a nomad tied an animal skin of cream to his horse. After a long journey the cream had turned to butter, and hey presto: butter is invented. But who has time to tie cream to the side of a horse and gallop around the countryside? This is where the churn comes in.
There are many different types of butter churns. The most common, and one of most classic, is the plunge churn. This worked by plunging a paddle up and down in a container, mixing the cream. This method dates back to the 500s. Other more unique methods included the crank operation and even a rocking chair powered churn.
Home production of butter was common in the U.S. into the 20th century, even with the advent of butter factories in 1856. Butter churns were often carved or painted with decorative features. Though the days of churning butter by hand are gone, people still seem to have a fascination with the beautiful churns of the past, with some selling for as much as $1,000.
We scoured the Library of Congress for some of the best pictures of butter churns, both at home and at the factory.
Woman churning milk to butter with kitten, ca. 1897.
Butter makers, ca. 1910.
Five men making butter in a class at Hampton Institute, Hampton, Va., ca. 1900.
Taking butter out of the churn in a modern factory, ca. 1910.
Farmer’s wife churning butter. Emmet County, Iowa, ca. 1936.
Wife of tobacco sharecropper cleaning butter churn. Person County, North Carolina, ca. 1939.
Daughter of Negro tenant churning butter. Randolph County, North Carolina, ca. 1939.
Member of Johnson family churning butter in her home near Black River Falls, Wisconsin, ca. 1937.
Taking butter out of churns at the Dairymen’s Cooperative Creamery. These are some of the most modern churns in the United States. Caldwell, Canyon County, Idaho, ca. 1941.
Getting sample of butter from churn. Portage, Wisconsin, ca. 1943.
William Heck, a stockman, churning butter after a hard day in the saddle. Moreno Valley, Colfax County, New Mexico, ca. 1943.
Woman churning yak-butter tea. Sikkim, ca. 1965.