|Technology and Culture: Chapter 7
Mid-Atlantic Dairy Production in the 1790s
Nine out of ten white Americans lived on farms in 1800, and virtually every
farm included a dairy operation. Although the work of dairying was divided
by gender, it involved men and women alike. Along with other responsibilities in the
fields, men maintained and fed the farm's herd of dairy cattle. Among their many tasks in the house, yard, and outbuildings,
women milked the cows and turned most of the milk into cream and butter. In dairying, as in all farm work, men and women drew on
the labor of their sons and daughters, respectively, and often of live-in
relatives or laborers.
At the end of the eighteenth century, a growing urban demand for dairy products
spurred farmers near northeastern cities, especially Philadelphia, whose population
surpassed forty-two thousand in 1790, to seek cost-effective ways to increase
production. The farmers often turned to agricultural experts, whose advice
their parents and grandparents had usually, and proudly, spurned. Many farm men introduced clover
into the pastures they tended, following the suggestion of one author who
maintained that clover "flushes [a cow] to milk." Men also recognized that while milk production was lower during winter, when most cattle remained outdoors, protecting their herds then
would improve milk production year-round. Accordingly, they expanded acreage
devoted to hay and built barns to shelter the cows in cold weather and to
store the hay. A federal census in 1798 revealed that about half the farms in eastern Pennsylvania had
barns, usually of logs or framed but occasionally of stone. After the turn
of the century, men would also begin to shop for particular breeds of cattle
that produced more milk for more months of each year.
Farmwomen of the period--often referred to as "dairymaids"--likewise sought to improve cows' productivity. The milking process itself changed little. Mid-Atlantic women
milked an average of six animals twice a day, with each "milch cow" producing about two gallons per day during the summer. Most of women's efforts to increase production had to do with making butter, the dairy
product in greatest demand among urban consumers.
During the 1780s and 1790s many farmwomen moved butter making from the cellar to the springhouse, or milkhouse, a structure (originating
in Continental Europe) built of logs or stone over a spring or stream. The
water flowing under a springhouse was diverted to a smooth-bottomed trench.
The house also featured shelves for storage and counters on which the women worked. Women carried the
milk in six-gallon pails from the barn to the springhouse (typically a distance
of one hundred to two hundred yards), where they poured it into shallow pans
or tubs. Although most women preferred pans made of glazed earthenware, some used wooden tubs out
of fears that lead in the glaze of the pans could poison their milk. The
glaze in American earthenware "is pure lead, and consequently a strong poison," warned a farm advice book published in 1801. Women placed the pans or tubs in the trench, allowing the
milk to cool for about a day or two until the cream rose to the top. Then
they skimmed off the cream, using a paddle with holes, and placed the cream
in a barrel. Once the barrel was full or the contents began to sour, it was time to churn the cream into butter.
Churning separates the fat particles in cream from the liquid encasing them,
thereby allowing the fat to clump together. As eighteenth-century farmers
phrased it, churning was the way "to bring the butter." Butter churns had been developed in England as early as the fifteenth century,
but were used only by the most affluent farmers there and in the colonies
until the late eighteenth century. These early churns were called plunger or dasher churns. Women moved the plungers up, down, and around to agitate
the cream. Although taking about three hours to produce a pound or two of
butter, plunger churns were adequate for supplying the family and a few local
customers. But as women sought to increase production for urban markets, those who could afford it purchased
barrel churns in which they turned a handle that moved a barrel of cream around an axle. They then pressed the churned butter
with their hand or a wooden utensil to remove the remaining liquid and salted
it to preserve it during storage and transport to market.
The innovations undertaken by "dairymaids" and male farmers at the end of the eighteenth century appear minimal compared
with those that would be undertaken during the decades that followed. But
it was these small beginnings that set in motion a series of technological changes in churning and other aspects of dairy production.
These changes eventually led to the point where a typical farm was, as one
visitor described a Pennsylvania farm in 1867, "a butter factory rather than a farm." Central to these innovations were women, whose labor and knowledge of their craft enabled their
households to change from simple subsistence farming to lucrative commercial