The Enduring Art of Turning Butter Into Sculptures

How a perishable ingredient has been transformed into shapes for centuries.

March 13, 2023
Photo by Rocky Luten

Making butter feels like magic. I say this with the authority of someone who lived on a farm as a child, grew up in a 4-H family, had dairy farmer great-grandparents, and now has a PhD in food studies. It’s such a simple process and only involves one ingredient (two, if you use salt), but the alchemy of making butter never fails to amaze me—one of the reasons why many cultures consider it something more than food and closer to art. Whether it’s marking freshly made rounds with an intricately carved stamp or sculpting great blocks of the stuff into life-like forms, people love using butter as a creative medium. To butter, I mean, better understand why this simple ingredient has captured our palates as well as our palettes, it’s helpful to understand how butter came to be.

A Historic Accident

We food scholars don’t usually like to generalize when it comes to our area of study, but historically speaking, butter is ancient. The exact geographical origins are debated: Historian John Ayto has argued that butter was first “discovered” thousands of years ago by nomadic peoples of central Asia, while others like Elaine Khosrova believe it was herdsmen traveling across ancient Africa. Regardless of location, most scholars agree that whoever first made butter did so by accident. The delicious surprise was likely created when an animal-skin sack or some other temporary storage container full of milk was sloshed and jostled during a long journey—resulting in the separation of the fats from the watery buttermilk—forming little yellow bits of butter solids.

Cultures Across Cultures

Photo by archer10 (Dennis) via Wikimedia Commons

Wherever people have historically kept domesticated mammals—including cows, yak, sheep, and goats—you’re likely to find a tradition of buttermaking as a method of preserving milk. In some places, butter became so important to both the culture and cuisine that it acquired religious and folkloric significance. The ancient Sumerians offered butter to the moon god Suen and in India, ghee (a type of clarified butter) has been used in religious ceremonies as far back as the Vedic period (around 1500 to 1100 BCE) according to scripture references. The tradition of carving colorful yak’s milk butter sculptures for the New Year’s Butter Lamp festival is a longstanding custom in Tibet and Irish folklore argues that the legendary smith Goibniu (sometimes simply called Gavin) watches over a great mythological cow and has the power to preserve homemade butter. Irish folklore also holds stories of butter-stealing witches, “taken” butter that fails to churn, and May Day festivals featuring cows, milk, and butter.

Before the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic church forbid the consumption of animals and their by-products (including things like eggs, milk, and butter) during religious fasting periods such as Lent. The Roman Catholic Church was centered in Rome, aka olive oil country, and local churchgoers had no issue abstaining from these foods. However, in dairy-centric nations across the rest of Europe, cutting butter from their diet proved quite difficult and nutritionally dangerous. In exchange for money, observers could ask the church for special dispensation, also known as “an indulgence,” to eat forbidden foods like butter (according to Elizabeth Boyle O’Reilly’s book How France Built Her Cathedrals: A Study in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, the great 16th-century Tour de Beurre of the Rouen Cathedral in France is so named because of the butter-related indulgences used to pay for its construction). As one might expect, non-Roman and working-class church goers grew agitated by these restrictions. And while it feels a little rich to give butter all the credit, the ingredient did have a significant role in the launch of Protestant Reformation and the ultimate spread of religious reform in the 16th century. Not long after, colonists brought barrels of the fat along with other traditional dairy practices over on the Mayflower, establishing America’s cultural connection with butter.

America, the Butter-ful

Photo by Wikipedia Commons

Up until the 19th century, most butter was handmade by women farmers who often sold their goods at local markets. The women would press their butter in round or brick-shaped custom wooden molds carved with details like cows, birds, flowers, vegetables, hearts, and other designs. These butter molds served as early family trademarks or brands, differentiating one farmer’s work from another’s. As industrialization progressed in the 19th century and the demand for packaged butter rose, butter factories, also known as creameries, appeared across dairy-rich states and the invention of the mechanical cream separator helped speed up the buttermaking process from days to minutes. But then came margarine.

I Can’t Believe We Thought This Was Butter

Invented in the late 1800s by a French chemist named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès and originally made from animal fats, margarine was touted as a caloric equivalent and cost-efficient substitute for butter. When it arrived in the United States it was also made with vegetable oils and promptly freaked out American dairy farmers. Confusing marketing names like “butterine” and the addition of yellow dye caused concern within the dairy industry, which worried that margarine would steal their consumer base. Fear for the “family farm” resulted in a veritable schmear campaign against the butter imposter and the passage of the Oleomargarine Act of 1886, which led to restrictive taxes and even partial bans on margarine production. While the dairy industry waged war with margarine in Congress, dairy farmers also found ways to show the public that butter was an edible symbol of the American way of life.

Butter is in the Eye of the Beholder

While Americans weren’t the first to use butter as an artistic medium, they were pioneers for using the artform to connect to uniquely American characteristics (or characters, rather). At the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, butter proved to be an effective and novel medium to showcase agricultural products while simultaneously boasting about America’s dairy bounty. Featured in the Women’s Building, a bas-relief titled “The Dreaming Iolanthe” (a well-known heroine in the Danish play King Rene’s Daughter) was created by Arkansas farmer and sculptor Caroline S. Brooks using nine pounds of butter and a butter paddle in a 15-inch milk pan. Brooks also held demonstrations of her sculpting techniques in the main exhibition building. Decidedly more patriotic, the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis featured a butter sculpture of President Teddy Roosevelt riding a horse. At the same world fair, sculptor John K. Daniels created a life-size tableau of three men in a canoe depicting the “discovery” of St. Anthony Falls. Sculptures of other important people, namely those who might influence federal dairy policy, were also popular at world fairs and smaller state fairs alike. Despite the artistic potential for politicking, the most popular butter sculpture subject was the cow, an animal that’s had staying power amongst butter artists.

Photo by @iowastatefair via Instagram

Modern Butter Creatures, Great & Small

Today, butter sculptures at state fairs are a tradition featuring new designs each year. Some sculptors stay on with specific fairs as artists-in-residence, like Norma “Duffy” Lyon—better known as the "Butter Cow Lady"—who sculpted at the Iowa State Fair from 1960 to 2005.

Continuing the tradition of animal-shaped butter sculptures, butter lambs for Easter found their way into many American homes. Likely originating in Central and Eastern Europe, those same dairy-centered nations that felt salty over 16th-century church butter taxes, the butter lamb made its way to America with Polish Catholic immigrants. Many families likely continued this tradition in their own homes with handed-down molds, paring knives, and piping bags. Others bought molded butter lambs from their local church groups or from regional brands like Danish Maid in Chicago, and Keller’s and Clearview Farms in Pennsylvania—two regions historically populated by Eastern European immigrants. Dorothy Malczewski is credited with repopularizing the Easter butter lamb after finding her father’s mold that he brought over from Poland (also known as “Baranek wielkanocny” in Polish). She was known for selling the little sculpted figures at the famous Broadway Market in Buffalo, New York. Since molding lambs one by one in the 1960s, Malczewski’s butter lambs (complete with peppercorn eyes and red ribbons) have spread to grocery stores across the nation. And now, there’s a butter sculpture for every major American holiday, including Christmas trees, Easter bunnies, and even butter turkeys for Thanksgiving.

Sculptures on the Small Screen

Photo by @thegeminibake via Instagram

Much to every early American dairy farmer and Polish grandmother’s delight, handmade butter lambs are now trending on TikTok and a resurgence of enthusiasm for homemade butter has newer generations seeking out vintage wooden butter molds (reader, I now have four). And for those who are still a little unsure of the subtle art of butter sculpting, live demonstrations of fanciful butter molds (like the 1970s butter fish made by Sam Raye Hoecherl of The Gemini Bake) are once again in style, though on platforms like Instagram rather than World Fair exhibition halls. For this food historian, I see this as a sign of the enduring allure of a simple ingredient that adds just the right amount of magic to your dinner table.

What’s the best butter sculpture you’ve ever seen? Tell us in the comments below!
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1 Comment

isw March 13, 2023
Been doing pasta with butter and (LOTS OF) black pepper for years. Never felt the need for "improving" it, but I may try adding garlic.