Butter tubs can be beautiful

carved butter tub norway
Norwegian butter tub with lid acting as butter stamp or mould. Made from wooden staves with the two longest fitting into the lid. Photo by Rolf Steinar Bergli.

Wooden tubs with fine carving inside the lid were traditional containers for a few pounds of butter in parts of Norway and other Scandinavian countries. Some were beautifully finished on the outside too, and could be used to take butter to festive gatherings and serve it attractively.

Because the interior carving gave the top of the butter an attractive design, these were called butter moulds by the treen (woodware) expert Edward Pinto. Obviously they did shape and mould the butter, but English-speaking antiques experts today tend to call them butter tubs.

Decoration on the outside was carved or painted or burnt, or all three. Tubs were constructed in the traditional cooper’s way. Made in the same way as barrels or buckets, with upright staves braced by bands around them, these tubs had two pieces of wood longer than the rest. They slotted into the lid and had a hole for the pin that fixed top and bottom together. Loose joins were sealed with rushes.

Size, shape, date

norwegian butter tub
Norwegian butter carrier, classic shape, burnt pokerwork design on lid. Photo by Rolf Steinar Bergli

Other tubs have a neater finish than the first one pictured here, with wood curving smoothly round the whole surface, using techniques like Swedish svepask. They all tend to follow the classic form: round, on three little legs, a characteristic handle on top integrated with the side fastenings. They are often about 20cm (8in) high and wide. Pinto says a typical container holds 4 to 6 pounds (2-3 kilos) of butter, though some might carry more.

None of the tubs illustrated here is dated but I guess they are 19th century. I’ve seen one from 1837 and the overall style fits in with these. This extra special one is from the 1830s.

Containers of this type were also used for carrying stews, porridge and other semi-liquid food. I’d like to know if carving inside the lid is a decisive clue to their purpose. Or was one container used for both purposes? This would break with the usual rule that dairy utensils are kept separate and scrupulously clean to avoid souring the butter.

Wooden porringers

swedish painted wood tub
Wooden tub or porringer, from Småland, Sweden. Painted decoration.

The Swedish container in the black and white picture is called a porringer (cooked food container) in a book by Charles Holme, who travelled to many parts of Europe to study, photograph, and write about “Peasant Art” – what we would call folk art now. It’s hard to know how much information he gathered about the everyday use of the items he studied. He was an art journal editor whose main interest was design.

As far as I can tell without knowing the language, the Norwegian name smøramber for these is closer to butter tub than to butter mould. Smør means butter. Amber doesn’t seem to be a common word in Norwegian. Interestingly, in medieval England an amber was a “vessel with one handle”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and also a measure of liquid and dry weight. And while we’re looking at words, the dictionary says a porringer is a “a small bowl or basin, typically with a handle, used for soup, stews, or similar dishes.”


Photographers credited in captions. Links to originals: Colour photos by Rolf Steinar Bergli here and here. More picture info here


A butter worker in the kitchen?

dasher aka plunger churn
Woman with traditional dasher churn for making butter, around 1905, Wisconsin.

No, not the long-skirted woman. A butter worker is a piece of dairy equipment. But there’s churning and other stuff to do before you use a traditional, non-mechanical butter worker. Scroll down to find a video link if you want to see this right now.

The woman in the photograph has an old-fashioned dasher churn with lid and long handle. It makes butter when someone fills it with cream and then plunges the stick up, down and around. But the end result of churning is not good butter. To begin with, there are lots of little buttery fragments swimming in thin buttermilk. You need to strain these through cloth (like butter muslin) and let the buttermilk drain into a pail.

In the cloth you now have a lump of nearly-ready butter. It’s rinsed to flush out the remaining buttermilk, but it’s still damp and not pure butter in a smooth coherent piece. You may squeeze the lump between wooden boards to press out the last drops of milky water and encourage the butter to form into a whole. Next you “work” the butter, while mixing in salt evenly, with wooden butter hands on a board, or with the back of a wooden ladle or a presser in a bowl.

A new kind of butter worker

butter worker in 19th century USA
Old Wisconsin farmhouse with butter worker on display in the kitchen, to the left of the table. Photo by Shihmei Barger

A different kind of butter worker emerged in the first part of the 19th century. The big picture shows one of the new kind in the kitchen of a German-American Wisconsin farmhouse. It seems like a good design: tilted to help liquid drain away through the holes, simple to make with home carpentry skills, and easy to operate. Moving the rod from side to side over the butter will press it and “work” it into good shape.

American butter worker from the 1800s
American butter worker from the 1800s

The simplest of the “modern” butter workers are generally only slightly more complicated than using a rolling pin on a wooden table. In the course of the 1800s more sophisticated combinations of roller and board were introduced. Rollers cranked by a handle, using metal fixings, lightened the work without being too complicated or expensive. People started to patent a variety of designs.

Butter worker with handle and roller
Butter worker from around 1880 with roller running on tracks and operated by turning handle.

In the picture the kitchen looks crowded with the butter worker and of course it is not a likely place for it to have been originally. You always need to do dairy work in a cool place even if you don’t have a dedicated dairy building. In a traditional kitchen the hot stove or hearth makes the room unsuitable for making butter or for doing any other work with milk or cream.

Butter making video

If you want to see the whole process, watch this video.

First you see the simplest way of making butter. A dairymaid skims cream off flat dishes of milk, churns, drains, rinses and works the butter before shaping a block with wooden “Scotch” hands aka butter pats. (She makes it look easy. Practice makes perfect.) Then the film shows mechanised churning with an end-over-end churn of a late 19th century or early 20th century type.

A butter worker from the 1840s, and one from the 1890s

butter worker 1890s with dairy school students
Students at the Wisconsin Dairy School with a butter worker, c1894.

Among the implements particularly worthy of notice, was a butter-worker, presented by Amherst Hawes, from the farm of Col. J. W. Lincoln, Worcester [Mass.]. It was a kind of brake. A marble slab placed on a table, with a slight declivity to let the buttermilk run off, formed the place for working the butter. A fluted roller, to which was attached a handle three or four feet long, fastened at the lower end to a swivel, constituted the power for working the butter, which was done by passing the roller backwards and forwards over it, applying as much pressure by means of the hand, as is required.
From: The Cultivator, A Monthly Journal to Agriculture, Horticulture, Floriculture and to Domestic and Rural Economy, Albany NY, 1844


Photographers credited in captions. Links to originals here: Woman with churn and Kitchen picture. Also see more picture info here.