Women’s Economic Development, Butter-Making and Butter Prints

This project seeks to use 3D scanning technology to replicate and interpret a butter print, dated around the eighteenth century, from the collections of the North Carolina Museum of History (Accession # 1916.8.1). According to museum records, Scottish immigrants brought this wooden print to North Carolina with the image of what is believed to be a tobacco leaf. It is the hope of our group that our 3D model of this object on Thingiverse will augment the limited factual information known about the butter mold. This technology will allow visitors of all age groups to further understand past methods of food preparation and handle technology from bygone eras. More broadly, audience members can critically analyze the broader significance of this piece of material culture for the individuals who made it, used it, and brought it with them to North America.

Methods and Technology

For this project, we utilized the MakerBot Digitizer to render a 3D scan of this butter mold. Starting at $799, the MakerBot Digitizer is a relatively inexpensive option for 3D scanning. This technology allows users to place an object in the center of a rotating circular surface while a laser scanner traces the outline of it from all sides. As the Digitizer software website describes, the scanner “contains an algorithm that connects hundreds of thousands of points into a seamless digital mesh in just seconds.” Through this process, we laid the butter mold in the center and observed the scanner as it formed these images together into a 3D model.

The MakerBot Digitizer created a 3D model of the butter mold in a .thing file. In order to convert the .thing file to an .STL file in order to edit and clean up the file before uploading it to the Thingiverse website, we used the WinZip program. Unfortunately, the full WinZip software is only available for purchase, but a free trial is available. Next, the free Netfabb Basic software allowed our group to further edit and examine a 3D rendering of the butter mold. Netfabb helps users remove outlying or extraneous material picked up by the scanner and to prepare the model for printing by rotating and adding a flat surface on which to place it. In our view, a flat base underneath our object proved unnecessary as the most distinctive aspect of this particular butter mold is the imprint of the leaf.



Creating a 3D model of the butter print allows visitors to the North Carolina Museum of History hold and examine the object up close. It is our hope that, once printed, a 3D replica of this object will serve as a more effective pedagogical tool. Although it might seem that this model diminishes visitors’ ability to observe the texture and craftsmanship of this mold, it is our belief that placing the 3D print near the artifact itself will better accentuate the details involved in designing the mold. Such a comparison allows visitors of many different age groups to consider historical questions and interpretations about what such an object indicates about the culture, economy, and society occupied by the mold’s original owners. Lastly, allowing for more physical contact with objects such as the butter mold could allow for greater audience engagement, especially among school groups.

Historical Interpretation

The production of butter was a major source of income for rural families in the United States from the colonial times into the early part of the twentieth century. Women were generally the ones in charge of butter production, and beginning in the late 1780s women began to successfully establish butter as a farm product with a “steady market and stable price.”[1] Despite ups and downs in the prices of wheat, corn, cotton and livestock, the price of butter remained fairly fixed, and many families became dependent on the production of butter and other dairy products, done almost entirely by women, as part of their necessary income.[2] Butter prints and molds were an important part of successfully marketing butter, serving as the trademark for each of these sellers’ butter. The seller’s butter print was their mark of excellence, their “final proud flourish,” and made their product easily identifiable to their community.[3] The production of butter had become so profitable, that in the early nineteenth century, men began to become involved in this process, and large-scale, mechanized dairy operations began to spread.[4]

Butter PrintAccording to the North Carolina Museum of History, this butter print was made from 1770-1820 and was supposedly brought to the United States by a Scottish immigrant in the 18th century. This print likely was produced in an artisan’s shop since the knob is lathe-turned, but the design is hand-carved.[5] While the majority of butter prints in the late eighteenth-century were lathe-turned in Great Britain and Europe, a burgeoning class of artisans in the United States began producing lathe-turned butter prints at this same time, meaning that the print could have been produced in either location.[6] The type of wood used to create the mold would further narrow this question, but this information is currently unavailable. Furthermore, many of the designs from Great Britain at the time were more intricate than this butter print, and many in Europe were already factory-made at this time. The design on the print appears to be a tobacco leaf,  indicating that the print may have originated in the United States. The majority of surviving butter prints originated in Pennsylvania, where tobacco was produced, and many Scottish immigrants came to North Carolina from Pennsylvania in the early nineteenth century, possibly giving an indication of the origins of the artifact. While the exact origins of this butter print are unknown, it represents the importance of butter–making to rural income. Although butter prints and molds were “primarily practical and secondarily aesthetic,” their designs serve as a reminder of women’s role in the growth of dairy as an industry in the United States.[7]

[1] Joan Jensen, “Butter-Making and Economic Development in Mid-Atlantic America from 1750 to 1850,” Signs 25, no. 4 (July 1988), 816. See also: Joan Jensen, “Cloth, Butter and Boarders: Women’s Household Production for the Market,” Review of Radical Political Economics 12, no. 2 (July 1980), 14-24.

[2] Jensen, “Butter-Making  and Economic Development in Mid-Atlantic America from 1750 to 1850,” 816.

[3] Karla Albertson Klein, “Wooden Butter Prints & Molds,” Early American Life 25, no. 4 (August 1994), 10. Paul E. Kindig, Butter Prints and Molds (West Chester, PA: Schiffer Publications, 1986), 39.

[4] Jensen, “Butter-Making and Economic Development in Mid-Atlantic America from 1750 to 1850,” 825.

[5] Kindig, Butter Prints and Molds, 86.

[6] Kindig, Butter Prints and Molds, 89

[7] Kindig, Butter Prints and Molds, 39.

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