History of butter to be featured at Pasto Ag Museum open house

August 24, 2012

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When you butter your toast or melt a pat of butter in a steaming baked potato, you probably don't give much thought to the versatile dairy spread. But butter has had an important role in the nation's agricultural development.

History buffs, agricultural enthusiasts, "foodies" and others can learn about the annals of butter during an open house at Penn State's Pasto Agricultural Museum, Sunday, Sept. 2. The event will feature butter and churns and their historical significance in America's agrarian past.

For the second consecutive autumn, the museum is welcoming visitors from 1 to 4 p.m. every Sunday during Penn State home football weekends as part of an initiative to raise public awareness of the museum's collection. Other open houses are scheduled for Sept. 16 and 23, Oct. 7 and 28, and Nov. 18 and 25.

Museum curator Rita Graef said the open houses will help the public appreciate the time before the widespread use of electricity and gasoline engines, when farm and household work was powered by the muscles of humans and domesticated animals.

"By seeing and touching tools and equipment used in early agriculture and rural life, people will better understand how early technological developments led to modern-day technologies," she said.

Butter is one of the most highly concentrated forms of fluid milk. It takes about 5 gallons of whole milk to make about 2 pounds of butter, Graef noted.

Historical records document the use of butter as early as 2,000 years before Christ. The word butter comes from bou-tyron, which means "cowcheese" in Greek. The original practice of the Arabs and Syrians was to use a vessel made from goatskin for a churn.

Farm production of butter in this country began at least as early as the 1700s. "Dairy butter," as this product was called, was collected as "pats," "balls" and "rolls" for sale or barter. In the 1880s and 1890s, paraffin paper -- later replaced by vegetable parchment -- was used as a wrapper.

"Historical accounts tell us that farm wives first skimmed the cream from the surface of milk and allowed it to 'set' in shallow bowls or pails," Graef explained. "The cream usually then was churned in the old familiar wooden 'dash churn,' typically operated by farm boys. Other forms of churns were introduced from time to time, such as rocker and circular churns with revolving paddles."

The Pasto Museum collection contains many examples of butter churns, and all will be on display during the open house. "Some will come out of storage for this event only," she said.

Graef invites visitors to bring their own butter-related item for a "show and tell."

Each fall open house will highlight a different part of the museum's collection, with activities, demonstrations, lectures and tours that connect agricultural history to the present day. Future events will feature apples, corn harvest, hay harvest, fibers, timber and logging, and other topics.

More information on the museum, which is operated by the College of Agricultural Sciences, is available online at http://agsci.psu.edu/pasto. To receive information and event reminders via email, send a message to PastoAgMuseum@psu.edu.

Located on the Ag Progress Days site at the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center at Rock Springs -- 9 miles southwest of State College on Route 45 -- the museum features hundreds of rare farm and home implements from the "muscle-power era," before the advent of electricity and gasoline-powered engines.

  • Antique churns such as this will be on display when the Pasto Agricultural Museum features the history of butter during an open house on Sept. 2.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated August 27, 2012