A Brief History of Butter…

As part of Dr. Melissa Gibson’s class Teaching Middle Secondary Social Science, students are asked to think about social studies in a new light — and throughout the course, their perceptions do shift. Through their blogging during the semester, we can see these changes in the students’ own words. Read on to learn along with our students!

Western-pack-butterBy: Audrey Meyersieck 

While it seems insignificant in our daily lives, butter has a huge impact on the different types of food we eat. Without realizing, I likely consume butter 3–4 times a day. Whether I use it when I’m cooking, spread it on my bread, or even when I eat premade baked goods. Although butter is seemingly a normal, household staple, it actually has an epic history that not many people are aware of. Behind every piece of buttered toast, buttered noodles, or batch of chocolate chip cookies, there is a story. Where did that butter come from, and how did it get into your local grocery store? In first grade social studies we learned that the pilgrims invented butter, and even dressed up at pilgrims to make our own butter in class. But that might not be the case.

In the Desert of ancient Africa around 8000 B.C., a lonely traveler made an accidental discovery. Thirsty from the hot terrain, he reached for the sheepskin pouch attached to his pack animal. However, when he tilted the pouch to take a sip of milk, he was shocked to discover that the milk had turned into a thick mush from churning around on the animals back. Surprisingly, it tasted delicious!

At least that is likely how it happened according to Author Elaine Khosrova in her book, Butter: a Rich History. She writes that butter is like “a historical roadmap of humanity.” While we often get our butter from cows today, early butter came from the milk of yak, sheep and goats. Over the years, butter has taken on different uses. In ancient Rome, butter was used for cosmetics as well as for healing balm; ancient Sumerians offered butter as gifts in temple, and the first student protest was even linked back to butter in 1766 at Harvard after a meal with rancid butter was served to students (Jankowski, 2017).

Today, most of the butter we consume is from cows. In order to make it, cream is held at room temperature, it is then aged in an aging tank for about 12–15 hours. After this process is done, the cream is churned and eventually butter granules form and condense; the liquid left over is called buttermilk. Salt is added to improve the taste and shelf life. In the final step, the butter is shaped, packaged into wax paper, and shipped off to the grocery store where it can be purchased for consumption. Butter factories did not come to the United States until the 1860’s, and it soon became a table top staple. Today, Americans consume about 940,000 metric tons of butter per year, and there is an increasing demand.

While butter can be found in a majority of American homes and grocery stores, many of us forget about the long process that it takes to produce it, or the environmental implications that it has on our planet. Through economic thinking, we can analyze the long-term effects and processes of producing different foods, and weigh the costs and benefits of buying certain things from our grocery stores. As social studies teachers, we can encourage our students to dig deeper into where our food comes from, and can provide them with opportunity to explore something of interest to them. They can discover a wealth of information about the culture during the time the food was discovered, and how such products have evolved over time.


“Overview of the Butter Making Process.” Animals | Causes of Color, 28 Nov. 2018, www.webexhibits.org/butter/process-steps.html.

Patton, Leslie. “Americans Are Eating More Butter Than Ever.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 14 Mar. 2017, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-03-14/a-fatty-staple-once-public-health-enemy-no-1-makes-a-comeback.

Jankowski, Nicole. “Spread The Word: Butter Has An Epic Backstory.” NPR, NPR, 24 Feb. 2017, www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/02/24/515422661/spread-the-word-butter-has-an-epic-backstory.

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