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.


Pie birds: how old are these collectibles?

ceramic pie birds
Blackbird pie funnels. Even the yellow one is a classic. Photo by Andy Roberts.

How many pies today are baked with a little ceramic chimney inside that supports the crust and channels away steam so that hot fillings don’t burst out in places where they shouldn’t? Also called a pie funnel, vent, or whistle, they don’t actually have to be birds, though using a little pottery bird with dark feathers and bright yellow beak is a nice reminder of the song about four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. You are as likely to see them in a collector’s cabinet as in a pie dish, but they can be useful. Pastry crust is less likely to end up drooping or soggy when a pie funnel is doing its bit to help.

All the same, they don’t really seem like cookery essentials, and this could help explain why they don’t seem to have been around for much more than a century. I’ve looked in vain for them in Victorian cookbooks and housekeeping manuals from both sides of the Atlantic. Mrs. Beeton’s comprehensive advice from the 1860s covers all sorts of pastry equipment but there’s no sign of a pie funnel. Pie funnels appeared around 1880 along with other not-quite-necessary late 19th century kitchen gadgets. Many similar “chimneys”, “crust supports” etc. were patented over the next couple of decades.

pie funnel nutbrown
Pie funnels like this were well-known in mid-20th century British kitchens. Nutbrown was a brand name for a range of small kitchen items. Photo HomeThingsPast.

Classic blackbird funnels

Clarice Cliff added pie blackbirds to her range of ceramics in the mid-1930s. At least one expert says this was her own original idea, and it was the first British pie bird registered design, but in Australia there was a similar pie blackbird funnel designed by Grace Seccombe a few years earlier.

Nutbrown pie funnels

From the 1930s to the 1970s and later a plain white or yellowish pie funnel was a familiar item in UK homes. The Nutbrown brand did well and its name is stamped on many vintage pie funnels. I am doubtful of claims that there was ever a Nutbrown Pottery. Pastry utensils of all kinds came from a company called Thomas (Thos.) M. Nutbrown Ltd. of Blackpool, England whose range of kitchenware also included many stainless steel things like toast racks, cookie cutters, and can-openers. By the 1980s Nutbrown kitchenware had been absorbed into the Wilkinson Sword group via a company which made scourers and cutlery.

Pie funnels in the USA

pie vent late Victorian
Pie ventilator - drawing for an 1891 US patent granted to Samuel Jenkins of Auburn, Maine.

In the early years of pie funnels they seem to have been more popular in the UK than in the US. There are few American patents in the quarter century after 1880. The first I found was a “pie-ventilator” from 1891 (see picture) and the next was an 1897 “pie-crust support” patent granted in the US to an Englishman. Meanwhile in England dozens of designs were registered, and pie-related businesses liked to distribute simple ceramic funnels with their branding on. The big surge forward with animal and character pie “birds” started in the 1940s, according to the The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink.


By the way, the only name for this kind of thing in the Oxford English Dictionary is pie funnel. Their first date for it is a 1910 entry in a department store catalogue. They don’t mention pie birds.

pie funnel…a funnel-shaped device placed within a pie while it cooks to support the piecrust and to provide a vent for steam.

Bird with pastry on its chest and a beak full of steam. Photo by thecopse.

Photographers credited in captions. Links to originals and/or license here: Pie birdspie with bird. Also see more picture info here.