How Technologically Advanced Were Butter Churns? Farhad Manjoo Investigates.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Nov. 28 2012 5:25 AM

The Hunt for a Better Butter Churn

In which Farhad Manjoo reviews a very old technology, because Slate readers told him to.

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Woman churning milk to butter, 1897.
Woman churning milk to butter, 1897.

Photo by J. W. Dunn/Library of Congress.

Other advances made churning more convenient. Some of the earliest churns were big, wooden monstrosities that required a great deal of physical force to operate. These produced many gallons of butter, which was ideal for people who lived on farms, but didn’t work for housewives in cities. In the early 1900s, something like what’s happening in the tech industry today began to hit the churn business—churns became smaller and more mobile. The Steve Jobs of the butter churn business was Nathan Dazey, whose firm, the Dazey Churn & Manufacturing Company, produced small, beautiful churns made of glass. Like Apple gadgets, Dazey churns (which have since become cherished collector’s items) weren’t cheap. In the 1920s a 2-quart Dazey churn sold for $2.30, which is about $27 in today’s dollars. Still, people loved them. According to Doug & Linda’s: “In the early 1920s Dazey claimed their factory was able to produce 2,000 butter churns a day. In 1915 Dazey claimed it had 250,000 butter churns in use, by 1923 they boasted of two million satisfied users and by 1936 the number increased to three million.”

Because glass churns contained only a small amount of cream, they made butter much faster than the bigger, older churns. (Of course, they made less butter, so you probably had to make butter more often—or, you know, switch to extra-virgin olive oil already.) In the 1920s, some churns even began to add gears into their handles in order to speed up the paddles which agitated the cream. This could make for very fast butter. One glass churn that hit the market then was called the Premier Two-Minute Butter Machine, and it was advertised to “positively make butter in two minutes and whip cream in one.

This might sound like an advance to you: Compared to spending hours and hours turning a crank in the early 1800s, people in the 1920s could whip up some butter in a couple minutes’ time. The problem, of course, is that a 19th-century farm girl who spent half her week churning butter would have been long dead by the launch of the Two-Minute Butter Machine. For her, churning was hopelessly static—not only did churns never change, but she’d have been crazy to imagine that anyone would ever make butter any differently. And her point of view would have been mostly correct. It took 100 years to get a slightly better churn (and really it was only better because it produced butter in smaller quantities).

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This, I think, highlights the most remarkable fact about our current tech age: Whatever problem you have with your gadget today, you can always expect that something better will come along soon, probably even sooner than you think possible. Where people in butter-churn age would have been justified in thinking that their products would never improve, our default is to expect constant improvement. Indeed, in some corners of tech, improvement is so constant that it’s become nearly predictable—we know, for instance, that in 18 months’ time, new microprocessors will be about twice as fast as today’s microprocessors. This speed of technological progress is baked into many businesses’ calculations about the future, and if you think about it, it’s also implicit in your picture of the future. For example, you buy your smartphone on a two-year contract, because as expensive as it is, you understand that you are not going to keep it for a very long time. In two years, it will be shamefully outmoded, and you’ll either run out to buy a new one or spend a lot of time defensively justifying your decision not to. 

There is one thing I wonder about the butter-churn days, though: Did hand-churned butter taste better? After making my own butter I know that homemade butter is not worth it, and while it can be good, it’s not a good use of my time. But after reading about churning, I do wonder if the labor involved in making butter somehow made the end product feel—and, consequently, taste—more valuable. What must it have been like to taste your own butter after putting an hour or two into churning it? I can only imagine—because, of course, I’ll never take the time to actually find out.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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