- Carole Conn
American Folk Art That Melts
What 19th century folk art just melts away? Stamped butter!
Why would anyone want to stamp a design into a glob of butter?
In the days before widespread packaging and distribution of butter by food manufacturers, all butter came from the farms and kitchens of rural America. In order to identify the maker and to convey a sense of quality, individual butter makers stamped a design into the butter they sold. Sometimes it was their initials, but more often it was a picture of an animal, a plant or something unique to them.
Butter stamps and molds are readily available in the marketplace today and are very collectible.
The practice of stamping one's butter has been in existence for centuries in Europe. In our early days as a nation we imported butter molds and stamps from England. George Washington's inventory lists one.
Beginning in the mid 1800s a cottage industry of butter stamp making arose as butter makers were under the impression that stamped butter sold for higher prices. The book "Butter Molds & Stamps" by Barbara S and Robert E Van Vuren contains an exhaustive study of the major makers in America, available on Amazon.
The very earliest stamps were completely hand carved, including the handle, such as this lollipop shaped stamp. Rare today.
With the widespread use of the lathe in the early 1800s most butter stamps were created on a lathe as blanks into which a carver created the design.
Butter stamps and molds were almost always made of wood in the 19th century, - primarily maple, but mahogany, cedar and birch were also used. A design was hand carved into a flat surface of the lathe turned base. Even though stamp makers turned out many designs and many similar pieces, the stamps were almost always HAND CARVED! Until recently, I would have told you that the more common designs were not done by hand. But I would have been wrong. (See page i in "Butter Molds & Stamps".) Not true for 20th century ones and reproductions, where the "carving", being done by machine, is not as detailed, crisp or deep.
Designs can be intricate and beautiful or quirky and naive.
The designs created in New England were derived from the British butter prints - animals, particularly sheep, cows, and swans, and plants like thistles, acorns and roses.
Pennsylvania origin butter prints, heavily influenced by the Pennsylvania Germans, tended to be somewhat different from the traditional New England ones. Tulips, hearts, birds and geometric designs were common.
As with most antiques, condition is important. Because they are made of wood, they often get age cracks - avoid those unless the design is really special. Some people stained and shellacked them, but that's not a desirable surface. They should show use - edges should not be sharp. Dark stains can detract from their beauty.
Some stamps are part of molds, some are not. Molds were used to standardize the amount of butter offered. They usually held 1 to 2 pounds of butter. When the stamp was integrated in to the mold there was no option to use a different design.
That's why many stamps stand alone, usually with a handle. Butter was mounded onto a plate, or formed in a mold, and then stamped with whatever stamp design the owner wanted.
Butter stamps are interesting, don't take up much space, and are relatively easy to collect. You can get a very nice one for $50, although rare ones, and completely hand carved ones, can be much more. Just buy what sings to you!
For more information see:
"Butter Prints and Molds", Paul E Kindig, 1986, available on Amazon
"Butter Molds & Stamps, A guide to American Manufacturers", Barbara S. and Robert E. Van Vuren, 2000, available on Amazon.
"Early American Butter Prints" by Elmer L. Smith, 1974