Let’s get this right out of the way: Butter sculpture is weird.
The art of carving giant hunks of chilled cow fat is, unsurprisingly, a distinctly American tradition, too: It’s fatty, it’s wasteful, and it’s entirely superfluous. No one needs a 600-pound butter cow. Butter cows don’t have pathos.
That is, unless you count this:
Nevertheless, butter sculpture is a staple feature of state fair exhibition halls in August, where butter is carved into busts of 1991-era John Stamos and tributes to cafeteria workers, in which the irony of healthy school lunch appears to be lost.
While the practice has some roots on the Renaissance banquet table alongside decorative sugar displays—as well as an entirely separate history in Tibetan Buddhism, in which yak butter and flour are mixed with pigment and formed into intricate scenes and mandalas called tormas—butter sculpture as we know it is an almost exclusively American phenomenon.
The earliest canonical example—and, yes, there is a butter canon—is a bas relief called Dreaming Iolanthe, sculpted with broom straws and cedar sticks by an Arkansas farm woman named Caroline Shawk Brooks. Displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Iolanthe was an instant hit, preserved over a bucket of ice that required constant replenishment.
According to Pamela H. Simpson, one of very few academics who have mapped the history of the American butter sculpture tradition, Brooks had been doing locals’ portraits in butter since 1867 with almost no formal artistic training. Like many farm women of that period, she churned the family’s butter, some of which was sold to the local community. To make her butter stand apart from the rest, she shaped it into shells, animals, and faces, carving it by hand instead of using the molds common at the time. Soon, people began commissioning her to make portraits in butter, including one of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Shortly later, she read Henrik Hertz’s play King Rene’s Daughter and decided to carve a sculpture in honor of the story’s heroine, Iolanthe. That became the the sculpture she eventually brought to Philadelphia, but not before it toured smaller fairs, where thousands of people paid 25 cents each to view it. It even got a write-up in the New York Times, which proclaimed, “The harmony of the face is exquisite. The ear is quite a marvel of delicate manipulation.”
Though she dreamed of one day working with marble, Brooks soon became “the butter woman,” and never shook that reputation. She traveled around the country with Iolanthe, or some version of her, and carved other sculptures, too. She became something of a celebrity as she went from exhibition hall to exhibition hall. In Des Moines, a brass band accompanied a live demonstration of her technique as she transformed a block of butter first into a bust of Napoleon, and then George Washington.
Brooks eventually relocated to Washington, DC, where she became a Republican socialite and continued her work, carving sculptures of US presidents, politicians, and novelists. For her most ambitious work, she was commissioned by a wealthy family to do a massive group portrait in butter, called La Rosa, that was later carved in marble. The process took a total of eight years.
Though her work went unappreciated by conventional artists at the time, Brooks had plenty of imitators. By 1893, other female butter sculptors began to emerge on the expo scene. According to historian Karal Ann Marling, however, many of them weren’t credited for their work, as butter sculpture continued to be viewed as an extension of women’s domestic work—i.e., a craft—rather than fine art.
At the 1904 St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition, however, butter came back in a big way. Several states chose to bring large butter sculptures with them—including a scene of a goddess, steer, and bear by California—but Wisconsin eclipsed them with a 600-pound statue of a milkmaid milking a dairy cow. It was only outmatched by Minnesota, which commissioned a sculptor named John Daniels to create a tableau of a missionary, Father Hennepin, seated in a birch bark canoe with two Native American guides.
These kinds of scenes set the standard for the butter sculpture of the time: tributes to the Spanish-American War, portraits of Teddy Roosevelt with his foot atop a freshly killed lion, and pastoral representations of farm life. Out of this came the tradition of the butter cow we now know.
And, thanks to advances in refrigeration, butter sculpture was wildly popular up to the 1930s. During the Great Depression and World War II, however, many pantry staples became scarce and butter sculpture’s popularity dwindled. It was also around this time that margarine began to replace butter in many homes due its cheaper cost and perceived health benefits.
After the war, though, butter art came back—mostly in the form of sponsorships from large creameries—and sculptors returned to their refrigerated cells at the annual fairs. The most famous among them was a woman named Norma “Duffy” Lyon, who became Iowa’s premier butter sculptor and supplied the state fair with a butter cow each year from 1957 until she retired in 2006.
But Lyon didn’t stop at butter cows—she carved pop cultural figures, including Elvis Presley, Garth Brooks, and Tiger Woods. In 1999, she made a rendition of The Last Supper out of butter, which brought her national attention. She even came out of retirement briefly in 2007 to carve a wonky bust of Barack Obama.
It’s easy to see Lyon as an heiress to the unlikely tradition started by Caroline Shawk Brooks: a humble sculptor who became a minor celebrity by carving the visages of politicians and other public figures in an uncommon medium. But cynics could also read into the history of butter sculpture the decline of American culture, too. What began as Dreaming Iolanthe has become, well, John Stamos.
Though perhaps the form doesn’t really matter anyway. As one unmoved butter sculpture spectator noted back in the 1870s, “Graceful and ethereal as its forms may be, one would not hesitate long to slice off a nose or a finger to butter his pancakes.”