butter churn on board surrounded by bread dough, eggs, butter, milk, and flour

Can You Handle the Churn?

The processes of turning cream into butter changed little from the 1700s to the 1940s. While the implements to do so progressed, much of it remained a process requiring strength, good weather, and time. For generations, butter-making was seen primarily as a woman’s chore or a chore for the children. They spent time every week turning cream into butter, one of the most affordable and easily accessible fats. The hand crank butter churn provided some ease for making butter but required much manual labor.
This cylinder churn represented a step in butter churn innovation. Larger plunger-style churns created a lot of butter but required more energy.
The secret to getting the butter from the cream is aeration or consistent movement to separate the fat, your butter, from the liquid of the cream. 

The cylinder churn from the museum may not have created a lot of butter, but life was easier for the housewife or servant to make it. After the 

top down view of crank butter churn with built in panels

cream separated from the milk, it was placed in the churn. The person then cranked the churn steadily until the fat stuck to the paddles and the liquid settled at the bottom. The multiple paddles within the churn helped in the aeration. The cylinder had a small hole in the back so one could easily drain the liquid. Before eating, the butter needed washing in clean water, seasoned, if wanted, and then shaped. Still, the process remained both physically consuming and time-consuming. During the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, roughly 2,500 patents were filed promising better butter churns. 

Scientific advances also helped improve butter churning. For example, a common belief was someone’s cream could be cursed by a witch. No matter how long one churned, the butter never formed. The only cure was throwing something hot in the cream. The reality of this was the cream was too cold. This understanding leads to some churns having duel chambers, one for the cream and one to add hot water to help raise the temperature. 

 Butter-making often fell to the women of the household. As America industrialized, butter-making became a skill primarily found on farms, but it now provided additional income. Excess butter was brought to local shops and stores, often in exchange for goods and sometimes money. Some women prided themselves on their butter-making ability. In one oral history from the Morrell family in Appalachia Tennessee, the mother recalled what a good butter maker she was. Her children also commented how they could never help her as she was peculiar about the processes. Not until after World War II did butter-making cease as a part of daily life.

eldarly lady churing butter
"Frances Evans of Cove Creek churning butter." From the Haywood County Library History Collection. 



“Churning Milk into Butter”, exhibit. McFarland Historical Society. Accessed on: 7 May 2020. 

Jensen, Joan M., and Mary Johnson. “What’s in a Butter Churn?: Objects and Women’s Oral  
    History". Frontiers: Journals of Women Studies.7.1, 1983. University of Nebraska Press. 

Manjoo, Farhad. “The Hunt for a Better Butter Churn.” Slate. 28 November 2012. 


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