The main objective in keeping cows was to supply the needs of the family for milk and butter. Butter was produced as an essential in the diet of most people, the art of making butter, therefore, originating in the home. Not until well into the 19th century was butter commercially produced by large dairies.
Prior to modern eras, butter churned by the dairymaids and kitchen staff was pressed into wooden moulds, or molds, and cooled in special larders until firm. Simple box-type butter molds, such as the one to the right, were filled with the butter and then pressed with the plunger into a tight, perfect shape. The carved designs inside the mold or on the lid presented a pretty picture when the hardened butter was released from the mold and served on a fancy silver platter.
Butter-moulds, or wooden stamps for moulding fresh butter, are much used, and are made in a variety of forms and shapes. In using them, let them be kept scrupulously clean, and before the butter is pressed in, the interior should be well wetted with cold water; the butter must then be pressed in, the mould opened, and the perfect shape taken out. The butter may be then dished, and garnished with a wreath of parsley, if for a cheese course; if for breakfast, put it into an ornamental butter-dish, with a little water at the bottom, should the weather be very warm.
~Isabella Beeton, Book of Household Management, 1861
Wealthy, upper-class Europeans and Americans impressed their guests with elaborate table settings, including butter sculpted into a bas-relief or decorative shape (two examples below). Designs varied widely, were handmade by skilled artisans, and extremely intricate. Butter molds and butter stamps were always made of wood for a reason. Before adding the butter, the wood would be soaked with cold water until thoroughly saturated. After hours chilling, the wood would dry, the butter then able to slide out easily. Other butter molds, like the one in the middle of the top row above, had screws and hinges to aid in removing the molded butter.