Pennsylvania Dutch Butter Molds
Pennsylvania Dutch butter molds are highly sought after collectibles not only in Lancaster County but throughout the country. Collectors admire their unique shape and design as well as their historical significance to early Pennsylvania culture.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, butter and eggs were commonly used by country housewives to barter for store-bought groceries, clothing, and other household goods. Since butter-making requires a great level of skill, farm women needed a way to identify their product as their own. This way high quality butter would not be confused with poor quality butter and the maker could be compensated accordingly.
Varieties of Butter Mold
As a result special molds were created for imprinting and shaping butter. Not only were the molds used to identify the butter maker, but they made the butter more attractive to potential buyers.
The butter molds came in a great number of variations. Many consisted of a small wooden tub or box in which the butter was packed. The containers varied in shape and size. Sometimes these containers were constructed with a plunger that was place at the bottom of the container. The plunger bore the design which was imprinted unto the butter when the plunger was pushed against the packed butter.
In other instances, the butter was packed into the container but the design was imprinted by means of a carved lid being impressed on top of the packed butter.
There were even cases where each panel of a box would have a carved design on each side. The panels were attached to each other by wire and were able to swing open and shut. By means of this construction, the compressed butter could have designs on each side.
However, the most popular type -especially to collectors- consisted of a circular, semicircular, or oblong-shaped mold which had a handle at one end. Once the butter was packed into a jar or a bowl, the mold would be manually pressed against the butter.
The molds were usually made out of soft pine or poplar wood. Molds made of other types of wood such as walnut are deemed more valuable by collectors due to their rarity.
In the earlier instances of this practice, the handles were made separately from the mold and then later plugged into a hole in the back of the mold. In later times, the entire handle and mold were constructed by machine from a single block of wood.
There is a virtually limitless variety of motifs or designs that were impressed upon the butter. However, the most common motifs contained variations of folk symbols such as the following: hearts, tulips, fish, eagles, roses, pomegranates, six-pointed stars, acorns, swans, wheat, and cows.
It should be noted that many of the more complicated designs tended to be made from machine since they would have been too difficult and time-consuming to carve by hand. Although these elaborate designs might be more attractive than the more simple designs, they are often of less value to collectors since, as a general rule, handmade items are more desirable than the machine-made.
Despite the fact that the primary purpose of the butter molds was to identify the butter for market, it is rare for the molds to consist of the name or initials of the butter maker. There are some instances where names were used but they are rare. It is also rare for dates to be imprinted on the butter design.
Who Made the Molds?
It is widely believed today that the butter molds were carved and crafted by amateurs and not by professional artisans. There really isn't enough evidence to conclude that professional woodcarvers created the molds as a means of earning a living. Most likely, the molds were created by the head of the household or by neighbors who were adept at carving.
This doesn't diminish the fact that there are a great many butter molds of such meticulous design that exhibit a high level of skill and craftsmanship. Woodcarving was a popular activity during the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. It is no surprise, then, that there were many amateur carvers of varying degrees of skill.
In any case, because the molds tended to be made by amateurs rather than professionals, there is a great variation in quality and craftsmanship among individual pieces. It often takes a lot of time, perseverance as well as luck to find the best quality pieces among the average.
For the Collector
It goes without saying that the butter molds whose excellent overall quality surpass the mere run-of-the-mill molds are more valuable to collectors.
In later years, molds were churned out by machines. This resulted in the molds being more plentiful and accessible at the local country store. However, once again, these machine-made varieties are less valuable to collectors.
The man-made molds tend to be the most desirable to the collector. This is the case even if the design is more simple and less attractive than the machine-made variety.
The age of the mold is also not an important factor in determining the value. This is because it is very hard to date the age of the surviving pieces. Butter molds displaying obvious wear and usage is not conclusive evidence of age. The action of salt and water upon the molds very quickly produced outward signs of usage. In fact, frequently-used molds did not last very long. Also, once again, since it was not very common for the dates to be carved on the mold or even on the handle, it has been traditionally very difficult to date the pieces precisely.
A likelier sign of age as well as of value is the type of design that had been carved. The designs that depict the most traditional folk symbols such as roosters, hearts, and tulips tended to be the oldest and most cherished by collectors.
If you liked learning about the folk art of butter molds and would like to find out more about other unique types of Pennsylvania Dutch art that can be found in Lancaster County, please see the following pages:
If you're interested in learning more about Lancaster County's unique folk art during your visit, why not check out some of the best
Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Art Museums
where you and your family can experience firsthand this rich and complex and relatively unknown artistic culture.
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