A Study in Butter

Library of Congress // Public Domain
Library of Congress // Public Domain / Library of Congress // Public Domain

In 1874, more than two thousand people attended a Cincinnati art gallery to catch a glimpse of Caroline S. Brooks’s sculpture of Iolanthe, the heroine of Henrik Hertz’s play King René’s Daughter. The sculpture was classical in style, with fussy drapery rendered in realistic detail. Brooks’s blind princess appeared in repose with her eyes closed to indicate slumber. But what was most striking about the sculpture—and no doubt why thousands wanted to see the work—was neither its detail nor subject matter; it was the material from which Iolanthe was rendered. The princess was sculpted from butter.

Brooks, known widely as “The Butter Woman,” was the first recorded [PDF] butter sculptor in American history. The wife of an Arkansas farmer, she likely began practicing butter sculpture in the mid-19th century in order to promote her family farm. Brooks, however, was remarkably skilled in the art, and by the 1870s, she was exhibiting large-scale work like the sculpture of Iolanthe.

Since the sculptures were necessarily ephemeral, preserved by ice to keep them from melting immediately, Brooks documented her works with photo cards, which were also used to later promote her practice. Iolanthe was a subject that Brooks was fond of depicting; records document the Cincinnati gallery exhibition in 1874, though this particular photograph, held by the Library of Congress, dates to c.1878. Brooks appears to have remade similar sculptures on multiple occasions. She often gave public demonstrations and it seems very likely that audiences were drawn to particularly well-known subjects. The Library of Congress holds an additional two photographs of Brooks’s dairy-drenched princess, including a stereo card showing a relief of a bust-length Iolanthe dating from 1876, the same year Brooks exhibited that work at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. A popular guidebook described the relief as the "most beautiful and unique exhibit in the Centennial.”

Library of Congress // Public Domain

The art historian Pamela Simpson notes that butter sculpture was a medium “strongly associated with women.” While making butter for home use, women had long used molds to mark their product, and the shaping of butter was born of rural homemaking. The journey from butter-making to butter sculpting was, apparently, a natural route. And butter sculpture wasn’t exactly unusual: One historian notes that butter statuary was so popular that, by 1876, it was a common feature on the exhibition circuit.

It was particularly popular in states where dairy played a primary role in the agricultural economy; butter statuary was a common feature at state fairs and installations at expositions. Minnesota, for example, had a lavish butter sculpture display at the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, butter statuary tended to depict flowers and cows, a tradition that laid the foundation for butter sculpture today; think of the photograph Ted Cruz shared on Twitter of him standing in front of a “butter cow” at the Iowa State Fair.

Brooks’s butter sculptures, like Iolanthe, tended to be more highbrow in their reach, attempting, perhaps, to elevate the genre to an art. Instead of cows, she exhibited sculptures of Lady Godiva, a group portrait of a mother and children called La Rosa, and a butter-rendered bust of the suffragette Lucretia Mott. Indeed, Brooks’s butter sculptures were perceived by contemporaries as great achievements in fine art created by women. In 1903, Simpson notes, one art critic claimed that Brooks’s work was so important, it had helped pave the way for other women artists.