Why Butter is Shaped Differently Around the USA

Everyone knows there is a difference between the western and eastern halves of the United States. The weather, culture, cost of living, and political preferences are so stark that it is almost as if a national border divides the two regions.

Even something as simple as butter is different. For those who live on the east side of the Rocky Mountains, one pound of butter comes in a box of four long and skinny sticks. On the western side of the Rockies, a pound of butter is one undivided block.

The regional butter border is far less divisive than the Mason-Dixon Line, but it is certainly a curious geographical feature. Why the difference? Is this some act of rebellion led by the Hollywood elite? Is there a hidden message in the way butter is packaged known only by the Illuminati? How did this practice start, and why does it continue?

Unraveling this mystery requires a bit of historical exploration. Butter appears to be about as old as civilization itself. It is not only a delicious flavor enhancer but is a rich source of vitamin A and carotene. As anyone who is trying to keep the waistline under control knows, butter is heavy in calories. As Milton E. Parker notes in his wonderful treatise Princely Packets of Golden Health, “Any modern treatise upon the subject of butter would not be complete without discussing it in terms of THE BOMB. Granting atomic fission its completely terrible, and we hope its fully magnanimous properties of atomic energy, which for its sheer power staggers the imagination, we must, nevertheless, recognize that when it comes to molecular energy, butter is still king…. [O]ne pound of butter contains the equivalent of 18,000 B.T.U.’s, while one pound of coal yields 16,000 B.T.U.’s, one pound of TNT lays claim to 2,400 B.T.U.’s, and one pound of uranium (the basic element of the Bomb) can muster only 2,300 B.T.U.’s.”

In terms of molecular energy, butter is … king. One pound of butter contains the equivalent of 18,000 B.T.U.’s, while one pound of coal yields 16,000 B.T.U.’s, [and] one pound of TNT lays claim to 2,400 B.T.U.’s

Milton E. Parker, “Princely Packets of Golden Health”

Butter began to appear on the shelves wrapped in paper in the closing days of the 19th century. In 1896, the Chicago Butter and Egg Board approved the practice of lining butter tubs with parchment paper and paraffin paper. By 1897, the use of parchment paper was so popular that a manufacturer received an award at the World’s Colombian Exposition for developing a machine for wrapping butter and using printed paper for advertising.

At the same time, the National Biscuit Company was finding great success with its new soda cracker, the Uneeda Biscuit. (See what they did there? Uneeda = “you need a.” Those 19th-century marketing guys were top-notch punsters.) What made the product so distinctive was its packaging. The crackers came in a shell-type folding carton of chipboard with an inner wrap of waxed paper. Covering the carton was a decorated over-wrap on the outside. The carton was called the “Peters’ Package” in honor of its inventor Frank M. Peters.

Uneeda Biscuit crackers in the revolutionary new Peters’ Package

Uneeda Biscuit’s revolutionary packaging caught the attention of those in the dairy industry. It wasn’t long before butter was offered in the Peters’ Package. Swift & Company opened its first creamery in Hutchinson, Kansas in 1906. The next year it received a peculiar request from New Orleans. The chef of the Checker and Chess Club wanted to know if he could purchase butter in 1/4 pound, individually wrapped units. The chef reasoned this would allow him to use the sticks for table service with less waste of product and time.

The request was a first for Swift & Company. No one had asked for quarter-pound sticks before. In the spirit of ”the customer is always right,” a worker was assigned to cut some one-pound blocks into four equal portions. Each was wrapped separately and placed in a regular butter carton.

The chef was pleased and continued to place orders for the customized butter. These were filled by hand for many months. Before the year was over, the sales manager for the New Orleans area advised that he thought there could be a good market in the grocery stores for quarter-pound butter sticks if they could be provided in mass quantities. This would allow customers to buy a stick at 10¢ when they could not afford or did not need a full pound.

With a few modifications to the butter cutting machine, Swift & Company was able to fulfill the requests. Quarter-pound butter sticks soon caught on not only in New Orleans but throughout the territory served by the company.

In Elgin, Illinois, (then famous for being the Butter Capital of the World) the folks at the Elgin Butter Company took note of the popularity of the quarter-pound sticks and adopted the packaging style as standard. This had the effect of making this form of packaging near-universal. Consequently, the long, skinny quarter-pound sticks came to be known as Elgins. All other butter manufacturers followed suit and tooled their production facilities to crank out Elgins by the millions.

Elgins style butter

Elgins graced the kitchens of homes throughout the United States for most of the first three-quarters of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the latter quarter of the century that we started to see a regional difference in butter packaging. The reason for this was the development of the dairy industry in the western USA.

Until this point in the story, there was enough dairy production in the western states to provide milk for drinking. There wasn’t much left over for dairy byproducts, such as cheese, ice cream, and — most importantly for our discussion — butter. This changed in the 1960s when the western states started to build up their dairy industry. By 1975, California had emerged as the second leading dairy producer in the country, producing 9.4% of all of the nation’s milk. This made it commercially feasible to begin butter production on the Pacific side of the Rockies.

As excited entrepreneurs started their plans to build butter manufacturing plants, they ran into an unexpected obstacle. The machinery that churned out the Elgins was over fifty years old, and no one was making new butter-cutting devices. Building new butter-cutting machines from scratch would be costly. Instead, they decided to forego the Elgins and present one-pound blocks of butter to the consumers.

Thus was born the Western stubby. That is the name affectionately given to the 3.1-inch (80 mm) long and 1.5-inch (38 mm) wide sticks that appear on grocery shelves west of the Rocky Mountains. According to John Bruhn, former director of the Dairy Research and Information Center at the University of California, Davis, “…the size of the cube you see is a result of newer equipment purchased at the time to package the butter.”

Western Stubby version of butter

In terms of the product itself, there is no significant difference between butter that comes in Elgins or that which is shaped as a Western Stubby. The only significant problem is for those who move from the east and bring their old butter dishes with them. Western Stubbies don’t fit in butter dishes designed for Elgins.

Aside from butter dish issues, consumers have learned to adapt to the butter shape for their region. Minnesota-based Land O’ Lakes makes butter in both sizes and ships it out regionally.

This, boys and girls, is the reason why the United States is a divided nation. Unity may be preferable, but on a positive note, at least we’re not stuck with the divisiveness that comes from having 246 different kinds of cheese.

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