A Study in Butter

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.

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Photograph of Jefferson Davis in Women’s Clothing

International Center for Photography, Gift of Charles Schwartz, 2012

On May 10, 1865, Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederacy, was captured by Union troops near Irwinville, Georgia. Davis’s capture, about a month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, was the effective end of the Confederacy and the four-year war that had left hundred of thousands of Americans dead.

Davis, a true believer in the cause of the Confederacy, refused to accept Lee’s surrender, believing that the South could still wage a guerilla war against the Union (clearly, Lee disagreed). With that cause in mind, Davis and his family fled Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, hoping to make it to Texas, where he believed he could continue to fight. But the Davises would only make it as far as south Georgia before they were found by Union troops.

According to a handful of accounts from the period, Davis was captured while wearing women’s clothes. The story, as it’s generally told, depicts a man desperate to escape and so, with the encouragement of his wife, Varina, he donned her overcoat and shawl and slipped into the Georgia swamp with a female servant (other accounts say he grabbed his wife's coat and shawl accidentally). Union troops spotted the two “women” and, on closer look, realized that one was wearing spurred boots. Given away by his footwear, Davis surrendered to the Union troops.

The story of Davis in women’s clothing traveled quickly to the ears of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War. Stanton recognized the story as an opportunity to discredit Davis, who still had numerous sympathizers throughout the country. Historians have noted that the North gendered its victory as masculine and heroic and, in contrast, portrayed the South as feminine and weak. Davis’s flight played into that narrative, portraying the Southern leader as a coward willing to emasculate himself in order to escape. In short, manly martyrs do not wear women’s clothes. (Never mind that numerous eyewitness accounts disputed the story, including two by members of the First Wisconsin Cavalry, one of the units that captured Davis and his party and another by Davis’s coachman.)

Nevertheless, Stanton planned to exploit the account to the Union’s full advantage. But there was a slight hitch in his plan—namely, the look and style of Varina Davis’s overcoat and shawl. Mrs. Davis’s overcoat was essentially unisex, and bore a striking resemblance to the raincoats of Union soldiers. Furthermore, the shawl was also worn by many men in the mid-19th century, including Abraham Lincoln. The original plan foiled, Stanton encouraged the rumor that Davis had been captured wearing women’s petticoats, earning Davis the derogatory nickname “President in Petticoats.”

The rumor proved incredibly popular. Historian Gaines Foster writes, “Northerners delighted in the accounts of how the Confederate chieftain had tried to escape in female disguise.” Indeed, even P.T. Barnum couldn’t resist the spectacle: The circus king exhibited what he claimed to be the very clothes Davis was wearing at the time of his capture.

Boston Public Library via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Numerous prints circulated of Davis in petticoats, and photography—a relatively new medium at the time—took up the theme as well. In this combination photograph (up top) produced by the Slee Brothers of Poughkeepsie, New York, and now owned by the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, Davis is depicted in the petticoats of a woman, his head, taken from a separate photographic portrait, having been imposed on another body. Here, Davis wears bonnet, shawl, and petticoats, a fanciful elaboration on the story of his capture, and the skirts are lifted to reveal his spurred boots. The Slee Brothers were one of many photography studios to use combination printing—the production of a single positive through multiple negatives—to play with the theme of Davis fleeing in women’s clothes.

Other photographs from the period depict Davis’s head superimposed on a body wearing full hoop skirts with large men’s boots also imposed over the body, as well as Davis (again in full women’s dress) sneaking through the Georgia swampland while holding a dagger. In almost all of these photographs, the boots are prominently displayed, noting Davis’s folly and a clear part of the narrative of the North’s victory.

Photography was undoubtedly a powerful tool to disseminate the story of Davis’s and the South’s defeat. Davis himself recognized the importance of the new medium: In 1869, he commissioned a photograph of himself wearing the actual clothes he had worn when captured. But the act was fruitless and, despite his insistence, the “President in Petticoats” is a story that stuck with Davis long after death.

Header image: International Center for Photography