The Secret Feminist History of Butter Cows
Women’s work and food sculpture
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This month, state fairs across America are unveiling their butter sculptures. In Ohio, it’s inventors: Thomas Edison, Garrett Morgan, Josephine Cochrane, and James Spangler. In Iowa, the butter-sculpture displays feature athletes: Kurt Warner, Jack Trice, and Caitlin Clark. In Illinois, this year, it is a 500-pound cow. Butter sculptures are a popular novelty at state fairs because of their silliness, their dairy-based megalomania, and their sheer oddity, but the tradition began in the homes and kitchens of women, who for so long dominated the dairy trade.
Ever since there has been a rich ruling class, they have been flaunting excess by carving food into ornate designs. According to the late Pamela H. Simpson, art historian and author of the article “Corn Palaces and Butter Queens: A History of an Unconventional Sculptural Medium,” archaeologists have discovered molds to shape bread and puddings into the shape of humans and animals from “Babylon to Roman Britain.” But the art form flourished during the Baroque and Renaissance periods.
Simpson notes that a biography of the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova includes a reference to butter art as a table feature when Canovia, as a kitchen boy, carved a lion for a table centerpiece. Some historians dismiss the story as a myth, but by the 17th century the practice of carving butter into patterns and shapes was common on the tables of the wealthy and middle class in England, where dairy farming was widespread and the climate was a little more favorable (at least then) to keeping the butter cold.
Until the Industrial Revolution, dairy farming was largely women’s work. Deborah Valenze, historian and author of the book Milk: A Local and Global History, notes that in the 18th century women’s responsibilities tended to be those located closer to the home, including duties such as milking cows and making cheese and butter while men worked the fields. As a result, dairy was a uniquely female enterprise. The work of an 18th-century dairy, Valenze, observes, “presented a world of labor, unto itself, topsy-turvy in its assignment of gender roles.” Women were the managers of the dairy and the merchants of their own wares.
In her splendidly titled article "‘She Brought Forth Butter in a Lordly Dish’: The Origins of Minnesota Butter Sculpture,” historian Karal Ann Marling writes that the creation of dairy products was so much the realm of women that butter money was often the only money a woman could truly call her own.
Similarly, sculpting butter became the realm of women. This ephemeral golden art, gently crafted into consumable shapes, was an expression of beauty and joy.
When the Industrial Revolution expanded the manufacturing capacities of farms, it caused a boom in American agriculture. As the scale of the industry grew, so did the profits. And as the profits grew, Valenze argues, women were pushed out of the dairy business by men.
…we are a state that creates; we are a land that overflows with butter cows and honey.
Simpson argued that butter sculpting entered the mainstream in 1876, at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, when Caroline Shawk Brooks carved an image of Iolanthe, a fairy queen from a comic Gilbert and Sullivan in front of a crowd of spectators.
The exhibition happened on October 14 and coincided with “Alabama Day” at the fair and the annual meeting of the National Butter and Egg Council, which put forth a statement loudly denouncing the use of “oleomargarine.” It was, in part, an orchestrated political statement from a newly burgeoning dairy industry that was expanding with the use of manufacturing processes and advances in refrigeration but threatened by the emergence of butter substitutes. But more than a celebration of overabundance and agricultural prowess, the butter sculpture was a work of women’s art.
Simpson writes that Brooks was heralded as an artist, and one historian at the fair noted that her achievement was significant because it demonstrated the “native” talent of a woman: “the lady had no instruction in the art.”
Just as butter carvings captured the American imagination at state fairs, women were being edged out of the dairy business almost completely. But they still retained a monopoly on the production of food at home, and with it the skill of creating art from butter. Butter sculptures were a quiet way of finding joy in the drudgery, the humor and beauty in the often back-breaking work.
So when America wanted to celebrate its prosperity and its centennial declaration that it was a world power, it was women who stepped forward to demonstrate the art of sculpting butter. Of course, men got in on the action, too. But this was an artistic field that women had created.
The rise of butter sculptures was accompanied by that of other large agricultural displays — like corn palaces and towers of oranges.
Between 1915 and 1925, Alice Cooksley, an English immigrant who married a dairy man from Illinois, displayed her award-winning floral butter sculptures at fairs across America.“Perhaps most people wouldn’t think of my work as art,” she told American Magazine for their July 1, 1927 issue , “but it brings pleasure to many who couldn’t be reached in other ways. To many a hard-working farm woman, butter means churning, lifting heavy cans, cleaning endless operators, backaches, and headaches. I would like them to think of my flowers the next time the work seems too hard.”
Butter sculpting is an enduring art, one that attracts people to laugh and marvel, and to find joy in the subversion of a cow being carved out of its own cream, the silliness of seeing Jimmy Carter’s head carved out of butter.
Simpson writes, “The idea of abundance underlies all of these images. The novelty of seeing something usually associated with small pats on pancakes presented in such gargantuan qualities as life-sized sculpture was part of its appeal. Only a land with an abundant supply of butter could afford to do such a thing–a fact not missed by those Britons who complained about the butter statue of Queen Elizabeth in 1952.”
The fact that press releases and news stories even today emphasize the alarming amount of butter used for these sculptures drives home the point — we are a state that creates; we are a land that overflows with butter cows and honey.
In the photo gallery above, you can see Carly Fiorina, Martin O’Malley, Margery Taylor Green, and former Governor of Florida Bob Graham standing in front of the butter cow at the Iowa state far.
In a year when an election is heating up, this pageant reaches its zenith during state fair season. Politicians line up to down corn dogs, flip hamburgers and pretend to like everything on a stick. It’s a grotesque parade of deep-fried pandering. From Pete Buttigieg eating pork chop on a stick to Tom Cotton eating pizza from a beloved Iowa gas station chain, each bite is meant to tell viewers that the candidate is an everyman, the kind of guy (or woman) who can roll up his shirtsleeves and dig into the most depraved American concoctions without regard for his waistline or cholesterol count.
And I’ve previously written about the power and comfort of casserole.