“What shape is your butter?” is not a question we’ve previously given much thought—but it is something to think about.
Producer of the radio show “I always wondered…” Tommy Andres points out that the shape of butter packages found on the East Coast is different from the ones found on the West Coast: the former is long and skinny, the latter short and squat. But why?
John C. Bruhn, former director of the Dairy Research and Information Center at UC Davis, explained that the West Coast was deficient in terms of milk production in the ’60s. But after the 1960’s, California became the number one dairy producing state. The shape of the butter sticks found on the West Coast is the result of new packaging equipment purchased in the 60s, when the dairy industry in the area really took off.
But that still doesn’t really answer the question of why West Coast butter is short and fat. In 1889, a man named Frank Peters came up with the idea of packaging food inside a sealed bag, then putting the sealed bag inside of a cardboard carton. Peter initially created the packaging design for crackers. But then, the food industry employed Peters’ invention for other products, including butter.
Butter was traditionally sold a pound at a time, so they made the box to fit a pound. A restauranteur in New Orleans wrote a letter to his butter supplier, Swift and Company in Hutchinson, Kansas, and asked if he could get ¼ pound sticks. He was a big buyer so they complied, the idea caught on, and that’s when the stick as we know it was born…
The long and skinny sticks of butter are called Elgin, because that’s the company that made the machines. The other ones are called “Western Stubbies.”
Fun fact: In 2007, Land O’ Lakes actually started making both sizes to sell in different parts of the country.