Butter is great in my opinion. It goes with about everything imaginable, even Theodore Roosevelt. While cataloging documents from the State Historical Society in North Dakota, I came across a picture of a butter sculpture depicting Theodore Roosevelt astride a horse. It captivated me and led to a slight obsession for a week or two.
What I discovered was interesting not only about the specific TR sculpture but about butter sculpture’s history. Butter sculpting is actually an ancient Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Yak butter is mixed with dye and used to create symbols used for the Tibetan New Year and other religious celebrations. It is also seen in references to large banquets in Europe in 1536, but it wasn’t until Caroline Shaw Brooks that butter sculpting became a “modern art form” in 1870.
Brooks was a typical Arkansas farm wife making butter and selling it, but she got a bit bored and came up with an idea to promote her butter over the neighbors. She sculpted it. Her unique sculptures caught the eye of the public and soon she was traveling from fair to fair and for 25 cents you could watch her sculpt. Some accounts have Brooks going to Paris and Florence to complete formal training and becoming a professional sculptor who only occasionally dabbled in butter later in her life.
Refrigeration became more accessible and soon butter manufacturers were competing against a new product, margarine. What better way to boost sales and promote their product than butter sculptures. Butter sculptures hit their peak during 1890-1930, and the art continues at a smaller scale at midwestern state fairs now.
A usual animal butter sculpture, like a cow, would take up to 500-600 pounds of butter which would be applied over a wooden or metal frame. To put this in perspective, this is approximately 2,400 sticks of butter which would be enough for 42,000 cookies.
The muses for butter sculptures of course run in the bovine family, but also celebrities, family life, and politicians. I have come across three butter sculptures of TR in my research. The first two were presented during the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. There was a bust of TR, and North Dakota presented a life sized butter sculpture of TR on horseback as a Rough Rider during the Spanish American War – the one depicted in the photograph from the State Historical Society. In 1910 during the Minnesota State Fair, TR was once again sculpted in butter, this time standing over a lion trophy with gun in hand.
I thought tackling a butter sculpture might be a bucket list item, but now after looking at the amounts of butter needed and realizing I would have to work in a refrigerated room, I think I will skip that for now.
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North Dakota's special butter exhibit. n.d. Frank S. Talcott Papers. MSS 10427. 48A0208.34. Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. Dickinson State University. State Historical Society of North Dakota. For reproduction or publication permission, contact State Historical Society of North Dakota.