You might be surprised to learn just how much research has been done on the history of butter molds. These delightful kitchen objects have, over the years, served their owners in a number of ways, including as ‘copyright’ protection, bartering staples, and kitchen essentials. Nowadays, butter molds are also sought-after collectors’ pieces. In this article, we take a look at three of the most important historical purposes served by the butter mold. Those purposes explain in part why there is a resurgence in interest among homesteaders and non-homesteaders alike today.
Farmers Used Butter Molds as a Form of ‘Copyright’
Today, there exists such a complex landscape of regulation around branding and design. When one company copies another company’s work, there is usually a swift legal remedy available to the injured party. Fortunately, injunctions, damages, and other consequences are fairly effective at stopping companies from stealing one another’s intellectual property. But two hundred years ago, this was simply not the case.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the history of butter molds was defined by the protection of farmers. Butter molds served as a trademark and as such played a very important role in identifying products. Absent barcodes and company logos, dairy farmers would use molds to make their butter products distinguishable. Dairy farms would have their own individual butter mold – much like a coat of arms – to help identify their products. In Pennsylvania, for example, German farmers had a particular penchant for tulip designs. Similarly, Irish butter makers preferred four-leaf clovers or other Celtic symbols.
These marks were especially important for farmers who labored intensely to produce the highest quality products. In this regard, molded butter became a symbol of that high quality. If a farmer had taken the time to mold the butter ornately, they had probably put a lot more work into the production in the first place. Molds not only showed off a farmer’s skill, but it also helped them to get better prices for their products.
Trademarks also helped consumer identification
Molds also played an important role in helping consumers to identify trademarks or ‘copyrights’ of particular farmers. When buying butter, consumers looked out for particular molds, much like someone looks for a particular packaging design today. If you had enjoyed one farmer’s butter, you could keep getting it by looking for the farmer’s stamp in future.
Molded Butter and its Role as Currency
High quality molded butter was, however, a symbol of much more than a farmer’s skill set and reputation. Butter, like eggs, also served as currency. Bartering was much more prevalent in days gone by, and butter was an in-demand and commonly traded item. At markets, many different vendors were trying to sell or exchange their butter. As such, farmers used molds, once again, to distinguish the higher quality products from the lower quality ones.
Farmers with intricate designs were able to command higher prices for their butter at markets and better deals elsewhere. A loosely-patted block, for example, may only have been worth half of a beautifully molded stick with familiar attractive designs.
And the effort was worth it. As more small farms were pushed out by the larger commercial setups, commanding higher prices became more important for business. It may not be an exaggeration to say that at times, molded butter helped certain dairy farms survive.
Creativity in Butter Making
Quite aside from their roles in protecting farmers and bettering deals, butter molds are undeniably attractive pieces of equipment. It is unsurprising that when commercial butter making took off, people missed that ‘something special’ that molded butter represents.
As a result of those depersonalized commercial approaches, smaller farms and individual families bought up many of the disused molds and made sure to put them to use on religious holidays or other special occasions. Families have passed down thousands of butter molds within generations ever since!
In this regard, the once powerful trademarking device became somewhat of a culinary luxury. Not all families had the time to churn butter and then carefully mold it every time, of course, but most certainly made time when guests came for dinner or when they otherwise had to impress.
Fast forward to this century and it is individuals, primarily, who use butter molds in their own cooking and dining. Molds are a common sight in homesteaders’ kitchens, but they’re cropping up in non-homesteading family kitchens, too. The advent of plastic and silicon molds has certainly helped their widespread adoption, but in our humble opinion, there’s nothing quite like the age-old tradition of sculpting butter with wooden molds.
What Are Antique Butter Molds Worth?
The exciting history of butter molds has created quite the market for antique butter molds today. Sure, you can buy plastic or silicon molds cheaply, but we’d wager most people still love the old world charm of antique wooden butter molds.
Have you got some antique butter molds sitting around? If so, they could be worth a lot of money!
While many antique butter molds sell on online auctions for the $20-50 mark, there have been stunning examples that fetch considerably larger sums. Sets of butter molds (which may, for example, have four or five stamps of different from animals or types of flower) can sell for over $250, with especially rare hand-carved items selling for over $500. If you are looking for larger molds that can handle around one pound of butter, you are probably looking at spending between $50-75 – unless you can find yourself a real bargain!
The smaller butter stamps tend to be less expensive, while larger butter molds typically are more expensive. If you are trying to judge the worth of an antique butter mold, make sure to look for cracks in the stamp/block and look out for any chipped designs that might not shower the intended picture as well any longer. Items with these issues likely won’t fetch as high prices as the better condition ones, even if they have more attractive designs. The real treasure in molded butter is, after all, in that spectacular detail.
Where Can You Buy Antique Butter Molds?
Many country stores – especially in New England – carry antique items, and butter molds can often be found there. It stands to reason, too, that more general antique stores might carry butter molds, or at least know where you are likely to be able to buy them locally (farm sales and house clearances, for example). In fact, you can often find out about the local history of butter molds by searching local antique stores!
Websites like eBay and Etsy, however, have the widest selection. When you are on these websites, you can either search for individual items (remember to use specific keywords if you are searching for a particular design, as there will be thousands to go through) or go to online shops that carry several of the same kind of item. At the time of writing, eBay had over 700 items matching ‘antique butter mold’ and Etsy had over 500. With designs including flowers, vegetables, trees, leaves, birds, fish, bears, mice, and nearly every farm animal you could imagine in between, you are sure to find something that catches your eye!
Stock on online auction websites rotates often, so if you are looking for something really special it might be worth waiting for it to come around. That said, with many gorgeous designs going for less than $30 apiece, why not start your own little butter mold collection? We bet it’ll make your homemade butter taste that much better…
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