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These days you can drive over to Publix and pick up a dozen Christmas tree-shaped butter sculptures to deck out your holiday table. Two hundred years ago, though, if someone wanted fancy butter for their dinner, they had to track down a farmer who used hand-carved molds to create show-stopping dairy displays.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, dairy farmers used prints and molds to decorate the butter they churned up each day. The State Museum of Pennsylvania, which knows quite a bit about butter thanks to the Amish, Mennonite, and Pennsylvania Dutch and German farming communities in the state, says that butter molds served an important purpose.

At that time, butter and eggs were practically a form of currency for farmers, who could use them to barter for store-bought groceries, clothing, and other household goods. Farmers who prided themselves on making high quality products wanted to mark their wares as their own and make sure they were properly compensated for their dairy-making skills. Butter molds, usually carved wooden pieces, allowed them to give their butter a unique trademark that would let consumers know they were getting the good stuff.  Fresh butter was smooshed (not the technical term) into a carved wooden box or rounded dome and pressed with a decorative stamp resulting in beautiful butter. That marking process became even more important when butter was sold at local markets, instead of directly from the farmer. Consumers learned which butter they liked and thanks to the unique design, could easily pick it out on the store shelves.

Woman Dressed in Victorian servant's dress, moulding butter in the Dairy Larder at Penrhyn
Credit: Andreas von Einsiedel/Getty Images

Throughout the years, dairy-loving farmers and craftspeople would carve the prints from boards or blocks of wood using either hand tools or lathes. Most butter molds are made of wood, but glass ones can be found, too, with fleur-de-lis or cows pressed into the glass.  Patterns varied by farm and by region. According to the State Museum, Pennsylvania German farmers favored pressing their butter into tulip shapes or other images inspired by nature like birds or farm animals. While butter molding and stamping was a part of life on the farm, butter sculpting became quite the art form. For proof look no further than the butter bas relief sculpture, Dreaming Iolanthe, displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, created by Caroline Shawk Brooks, an artist who worked almost exclusively in butter.

Of course, American famers were not the first people on the planet to come up with the idea of molding food into pretty shapes. As Atlas Obscura notes, “[A]rchaeologists have unearthed molds for shaping foods that date as far back as ancient Babylon.” The practice of making dairy-based centerpieces became even more popular during the Renaissance and dairy farmers in Northern Europe stamped patterns in butter in the 19th century.

Today, vintage butter molds have become popular collectibles that people scoop up at antiques fairs and flea markets. Because everything old becomes new again, fancy molded butter is also making a comeback popping up at restaurants and at dinner tables as a way to impress guests.