Butter churns recall simpler times and down-home pleasures. Sweet butter produced from hours of hand labor was the pride and joy of many an old-time farm. Butter churns work on the simple principle that agitating cream eventually turns it into butter. The most well-known kind of churn was a simple barrel-like device with a handle that was moved up and down. Other versions of the butter churn include paddle churns and barrel churns.
The churn changed little through the centuries. Examples from 14 centuries ago differ little in appearance from the models seen in today's antique and country stores. A long pole, with or without slots or paddles, fits snugly inside a tall vessel. Simple, rustic models made of wooden staves can be purchased today for less than $100. Genuine antiques, these reveal the persistence of the earliest form of butter-making technology.
Improvements in butter making led to the development of the paddle churn. First seen in 18th-century England, the new device was the inspiration for a variety of forms that employed paddles turned by a crank or wheel. Many took the shape of large tubs with curved bottoms. These "Union Churns" came in original and improved versions, and sold for about $4.75 in the 1896 Sears Catalog. Others were large horizontal wooden cylinders, or barrels. These can sell for anywhere from $150 to $200 (as of September 2009).
Companies competed to produce the most convenient designs. In great demand were small models that could be used at home. In the early 1900s, the Dazey Co. revolutionized home churning with its glass models that permitted the user to actually watch the progress of her work. Simple Dazey churns resemble milk bottles with metal plungers and wooden cranks. Authentic old models feature tiny bubbles, signs of genuine hand-blown glass and the imprint of a flower on the lid. Price varies by size and condition, with bevel-edged 1-quart churns with a horseshoe on the top going for $2,000 to $3,000.
In the case of mass-manufactured paddle churns and Dazey churns, minor difference in appearance and model can equal huge differences in worth. Dazey sloped-shoulder 1-quart churns with the same patent date and information as the company's larger slope-shoulder jars are valued at $10,000. As only 20 are known to exist, extreme rarity plays a crucial role in determining price. Horseshoe Dazey churns typically sell for many times the price of similarly sized Bull's Eye and Slope Shoulder designs.
Antique butter churns are available on the Internet, and at antique and country stores everywhere. Not all examples are authentic. Some are reproductions made to look old and worn. Look for identifying marks such as stenciled names and stamps. Mass-produced models will carry patent information. Condition, too, is an essential factor in price. A model in good condition can easily fetch 50 percent more than an identical model in poor condition. Look for authentic churns that possess all parts and are in good working order. Ideally, stenciled names and stamps should be clearly legible.
Brian Adler has been writing articles on history, politics, religion, art, architecture and antiques since 2002. His writing has been published with Demand Studios, as well as in an online magazine. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Columbia University.