Handmade Butter Mold – Mid 1700’s
Throwback Thursday takes us to the mid 1700’s and the dinner table of a wealthy European family. These Upper Class Europeans would often use detailed and elaborate table settings and food options to impress their equally wealthy guests. In fact, most of these families would go as far as to decorate the block of butter served with bread! Yes, that’s right – they would imprint a small, elegant design into the butter served with their meals. This decorative work was done by using a press and a butter mold. The first butter molds were structured more like a paddle, with a stamp or butter press on the end. The carved design would be carved into the wood of the press so that when the butter was released from the mold it would leave the impression on top. This would give the now sculpted butter a sense of bas-relief, which is a French term that means a carving that rises slightly from its surround surface. Before actual molds were made, people would simply shape the butter by hand into a mounded shape and use the stamp with a carving to imprint on it. Gradually, people moved on to a hollowed out shape that had a carved surface along the sides. These carved designs were handmade by skilled craftsmen. The designs varied from region to region and were extremely intricate featuring everything from astronomy to flowers, plants and animals.
The simpler butter molds (like the one shown above), were often a brick shaped or slightly rounded. The molds were hollow on the inside with a hole in the top to fit the plunger piece. This “plunger piece” had the imprinting stamp on the bottom. It was very important that the butter mold was soaked in water for at least 10 minutes to saturate the wood. To use the mold, one would fit the plunger into the mold, and fill the mold with butter. Then, firmly press the plunger so that it fit tightly to the butter and keep in a cool environment for a few hours. Many molds were designed so the handle could be unscrewed for easy storage. As the mold chills it dehydrates and returns to its larger size, this enables the butter to slide out easily and keep the intricate design on top.
Butter molds were reserved for the more well to do families until the 1870’s. The invention of the mechanized lathe in 1870 made it possible to make more precise cuts of thin wood. Now butter molds were being made for commercial dairy farmers as well as the general public. In 1866, John Bullard of Ohio designed a round butter mold, using a lathe and a special cutting tool he also designed and patented. These butter molds were calculated to precise measurements unlike the handmade molds. Customers were confident that they were buying ½ lbs, 1 lbs, and 2 lbs portions of butter. The dairy name and motif would be stamped on top. By the 1900’s butter molds were machine made for quick assembly and did not have the quality of craftsmanship that the hand carved ones had. Glass and metal molds were also available at this time; these were easier to clean and no soaking was necessary.
When looking for an antique mold, look for evidence of wear, because of repeated soaking and use; butter molds will often soften around the edges. Scratches and nicks on older molds add “spirit and character” to pieces of kitchenware and often reflect the age of the piece. With the beautiful carvings and the wide variety of styles available, antique butter molds are an interesting collector item and an attractive decorating choice. Butter molds are a grand way to make a “good impression”. Please visit The Past Antiques Marketplace and see all of our vintage kitchenware on Route 85 in Montville, CT.