As the World Churns

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Our ancestors have been making butter for 10,000 years—though, given how it was originally made, you might’ve thought twice before spreading it on your prehistoric toast. Ancient Mesopotamians would skin a goat, then tightly tie up the goatskin, leaving an opening at the left foreleg. They’d pour in goat’s or sheep’s milk, suspend the goatskin from tentpoles and beat it with sticks until butter formed.
Most sources say the word butter stems from boutyron, Greek for “cow cheese.” Some scholars believe the sheep- and goat-herding Greeks borrowed the term from the cattle-herding Scythians.
Even after 10,000 years, however, exactly how churning produces butter remains what food writer Harold McGee called “an everyday miracle.” The agitation releases globules of butterfat, which bump into each other and congeal. It takes about 9.5 quarts of raw whole milk or cream to make one pound of butter. The resulting compound contains more than 120 different chemicals, giving butter its unique flavor, and is 16 to 17 percent water.
Before modern packaging, early butter also picked up flavors from its storage place. In Ireland and Scotland, butter was packed in wooden firkins and buried in peat bogs, whose cool, anaerobic conditions enabled it to last indefinitely; the Irish were said to plant trees to mark butter burial sites. Butter stored in cold seawater tasted briny, while butter kept in cellars acquired the flavors of the neighboring turnips and cabbage.
In homes and later on farms as dairying became a specialized craft, making butter was women’s work. Even the word dairy comes from the Middle English dey, meaning female servant. In pre-industrial England, prospective brides were judged in part by their butter-churning skills—and strength: “In one village,” writes historian Margaret Visser, “it was traditional for a young girl to lift the immensely heavy lid of the parish chest with one hand, to show how desirable she was.”
Other qualities began to replace butter-making in importance for brides during the 19th century, as dairy work industrialized and churning moved from farm to factory. Proof that butter could be made remotely was provided in 1851, when the first refrigerated rail car, cooled by ice, transported butter from Ogdensburg, NY, to Boston. In 1861, Alanson Slaughter established America’s first factory creamery—making both butter and cheese—in Walkill, NY. Illinois dairymen soon visited and learned a few things from their New York peers, establishing the Elgin Butter Creamery in Elgin, Ill., in 1871. Elgin would later become the “Butter Capital of the World.”
Factories adopted the “whole milk system,” in which dairy farmers periodically delivered milk from their cows to the plant. The 1864 invention of the centrifugal cream separator in Sweden streamlined the process and increased the efficiency of extracting butterfat from milk.
Initially, factories packed butter in wooden firkins that held 112 pounds. In the 1860s, white ash tubs that held 60 pounds of butter began to replace the firkin in Western states. Eventually, the use of galvanized steel hoops to secure the wood led to a standardized half-firkin tub holding 56 pounds.
Early shoppers took home butter wrapped in linen, later in cheesecloth. Paraffin paper and parchment began to replace cloth in the 1880s and 1890s. The folding carton, developed for Quaker Oats in 1903, would be adopted by new butter cooperatives such as Land O’Lakes in Minnesota. Founded in 1921, Land O’Lakes also pioneered making butter from sweet, rather than sour, cream.
But a threat to butter’s spread supremacy arose from France. In 1813, French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul discovered what he called margaric acid (from the Greek margaris, meaning “pearl,” because the fatty deposits appeared pearly). Although Chevreul’s discovery later proved erroneous—the fatty acid was actually just a combination of two other fats, stearic acid and palmitic acid—the name stuck. In 1869, Emperor Louis Napoleon III of France offered a prize for the invention of a butter substitute that could be fed to soldiers and peasants. Another French chemist, Hippolyte Mège-Mouries, stepped up to the plate with a substance made from animal fat and a little milk, which he dubbed oleomargarine after Chevreul’s margaric acid. Although Mège-Mouries won the prize and patented margarine, he flopped at commercializing his invention. In 1871, he sold the patent to the Dutch company Jurgens, now part of Unilever.
Others quickly cashed in on the promise of a cheap butter substitute. By 1883, Mark Twain reported a riverboat conversation between two businessmen in Life on the Mississippi: “Why, we are turning out oleomargarine now, by the thousands of tons. And we can sell it so dirt-cheap that the whole country has got to take it—can’t get around it, you see. Butter don’t stand any show—there ain’t any chance for competition.”
But the dairy industry struck back. States began passing anti-margarine laws in 1877, and Congress imposed the first tax on “artificial butter” with the Margarine Act of 1886. Some states required margarine, normally white, to be colored an unpalatable pink. By 1902, 80 percent of the US population, in 32 states, lived under laws prohibiting yellow margarine; a generation of Americans grew up coloring margarine with dye capsules provided separately by the manufacturers.
Federal margarine taxes persisted until 1951, after which margarine consumption almost doubled over the next 20 years. Wisconsin, the Dairy State, was the last to repeal its margarine restrictions, in 1967. By that time, vegetable oils had replaced animal fats in the manufacture of margarine, and the product was widely viewed as not only cheaper but healthier than butter. Partial hydrogenation made liquid vegetable oils solid and shelf-stable. Beginning in Europe in the 1960s, “spreads” and tub margarine were introduced for easier spreading. By 1973, world margarine consumption exceeded that of butter by about 25 percent.

But butter would have the last laugh. The trans fats produced by hydrogenation turned out to be even worse for your heart than the saturated fat in butter. Along with culinary trends and the availability of artisanal butters, that revelation led Americans in 2005 to consume more butter than margarine for the first time in almost half a century.

After 10,000 years, it’s hard to keep a good spread down.
79 AD | Pliny the Elder calls butter “the most delicate of food among barbarous nations”
1670 | England’s Parliament regulates British butter pots
1861 | First US butter factory opens in Walkill, NY
1869 | Hippolyte Mège-Mouries invents margarine
1886 | First federal margarine tax is enacted
1908 | Butter churns win more patents than any other device
1923 | Butter-grading system enacted
1958 | US consumption of margarine exceeds that of butter
1961 | Julia Child authors Mastering the Art of French Cooking

1986 | I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter hits stores