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Caught Our Eyes: Better with Butter

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Reading the caption for a photograph can sometimes change every assumption made at first glance. One word in the title of this photograph shifted my entire view, and definitely caught my eye. Look at the image yourself, and then read the full title as it was written on the back of this stereograph card.

The Dreaming Iolanthe. Photo, 1876.

The Dreaming Iolanthe, King Rene’s Daughter, from Henri Herz. A Study in Butter, by Caroline S. Brooks, daughter of Abel Shawk.

Caroline Shawk Brooks. Halftone print, between 1880 and 1900.

I think you can guess which word snagged my attention: Butter. That’s right, in 1876, Caroline Shawk Brooks carved the above bas-relief out of nine pounds of butter. And not just any butter, but likely butter she churned herself on the farm she ran with her husband in Helena, Arkansas.  This impressive carving was displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pa., and the event was a key moment in the long history of butter sculpture, as the art moved from small decorative works for the dinner table to sculptures displayed in expositions and fairs. Sculpting impressive likenesses out of butter continues to this day at state fairs in the heart of the U.S. dairy industry.

The above image naturally led me to wonder if we had more images of butter sculptures in our collections. This one from the 1904 World’s Fair marking the centennial of the  Louisiana Purchase in St. Louis is certainly impressive. Imagine what it took to create this butter sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt – and his horse!

“The Man on Horseback” – Equestrian Statue of President Roosevelt Modelled in Butter, World’s Fair, St. Louis. Photo copyrighted by C.L. Wasson, 1905.

Learn More:

  • See a few more examples of butter sculpture in the collections of the Prints and Photographs Division.
  • The tradition continues:  The Minnesota State Fair’s butter sculpting history stretches back into the 19th century. Since 1965, the newly crowned Princess Kay of the Milky Way has had her likeness carved from butter on opening day of the fair.  Read more on butter sculpting at the fair from the Midwest Dairy Association. Another notable example: the Iowa State Fair has been displaying a butter cow for over one hundred years!
  • Butter sculpture was not the only notable and unusual display at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia or the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.  Displays made of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and so on were common in many fairs and expositions. The Prints and Photographs Division’s collections include thousands of images of expositions and World’s Fairs to explore!

Comments (6)

  1. Very interesting to learn about and actually see old butter sculptures.
    Thank you.

  2. Wonderful – thanks for this Kristi!

  3. This is great! I never knew this sculpture type existed! Fantastic! Thank you for sharing!

  4. Very beautiful!

  5. That is incredible! “The Man on Horseback” has to be reinforced with something, those thin, elegant horse legs (as muscular as they may be) are certainly not supporting the weight of the sculpture on their own!

    The thing I really like about butter sculptures is that they truly represent artistic passion, because the artist makes it knowing that it could not possibly last long…

  6. @Eric W I can definitely appreciate how delicate butter would be as an artistic medium, but I can’t help but think I would be jipped as a buyer. What happens if it melts? Art is beautiful, but in my opinion it should be an investment. What good does it do me if I can’t have it on display (I live in Arizona, butter is only good for omelets here)?

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