In the novel I’m currently writing, one character— a farm wife living in the early 1900s—operates a home dairy and sells butter to local families. I recently discovered an inspiring historical document about a farming couple in the butter business—Samuel and Jane Spares from Northfield, Hants County, Nova Scotia.
Between 1885 and 1890, the Spares sold $770.00 of produce generated by their farm. Three quarters of those funds were generated by livestock products, but the remainder was owing to butter, oats, hay and wool. “The 350 lbs. of butter sold (an average of 58 lbs per year) was the most important of these products. Churned in the kitchen by Jane Spares and her daughters, home-produced butter remained an important element of this farm’s commercial output until the establishment of a dairy factory in the district after the turn of the century.”
With an interest in butter-making, I set out to learn the process used by our early families.
- After milking the cow, strain into a glass, ceramic, or metal container and store in a cellar or spring house. It’s important to cool the milk immediately.
- Use a skimmer to remove the risen cream.
- Once a sufficient amount of cream is collected, it’s time to churn. (Note: Sour cream yields better results than sweet. The most common churns were made of wood or stoneware with a tight-fitting lid through which a wooden rod or dasher passed. One end of the dasher was attached to a wooden cross or a disk with holes in it.) Plunge the dasher up and down until the cream divides itself into solid lumps and liquid buttermilk.
- Drain the buttermilk from the butter.
- Use wooden scoops to remove butter from the churn, place in a wooden bowl and rinse with cool water. Press butter against sides of bowl to squeeze out all remaining moisture. Rinse and press again.
- Once all liquid is removed, use paddles to work salt into the butter. If pale in colour, add yellow tint obtained from dandelion or marigold blossoms, grated carrots, or a commercial butter tint.
In place of the bowl and paddles, some farmers built a butter-worker, a triangular-shaped bin on legs. The shallow bed was angled downward so that the lowest point was the peak of the triangle. Inside that peak was a hole through which a flat-edged paddle pivoted. When swept side to side, the paddle pressed moisture from the butter. This tool made the job less laboursome.
The success of a butter batch could be affected by temperatures above or below 72 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius). Butter-making and responsibilities in the dairy were considered women’s work. Work songs were often sung to help the operator sustain rhythmic churning motion necessary for the wearisome task. Children were often called upon to help.
Butter was stored for several months in wooden pails or stoneware crocks and topped with ½ inch (1 centimeter) of salt. Paper was laid over the mouth of the container and secured by string. Smaller quantities (1-2 pounds or .4-.8 kilograms) were stored in wooden molds. A plunger carved with a decorative emblem was used to push the butter from the mold. The emblem imprint provided a nice esthetic and also helped shoppers to identify who’d made the butter. Purchasers preferred certain butter makers for the attractiveness of their butter in terms of colour and imprint, and also for its taste which was due in part to the makers craft but also to the type of grass upon which their cows grazed.
(PS Click here to join Gwen’s bimonthly newsletter and receive your free excerpt of The Last Hoffman.)
“I Loved Your Book The Last Hoffman. It is insightful and honest and a great read. So to all of my reader friends Gwen is writing about us. Canadian literature at it’s finest.” –A Reader
“For all the novel features characters that are alone, it is a story driven by human connections (…) With vivid descriptions, natural dialogue and in-depth characterization, Tuinman compels us to look beyond the surface. The ending is triumphant.” –Historical Novel Society