Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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@ElizaBTweetin: June 10, 1872: Commerce & Custom

Posted on June 10, 2013

Eliza B.Wheaton's Diary, 8-13 June 1872

Eliza B.Wheaton's Diary, 8-13 June 1872.

Business and domestic duties kept Eliza busy during the early weeks of June 1872.

Mrs. Wheaton kept a small income-producing herd of Jersey cattle. Admired for their beautiful fawn coloring and huge doe-like eyes, Jerseys are small, docile, inquisitive, and known for their high protein and butterfat production (each cow can produce as much as thirty pounds of milk and several pounds of butter every day!).

Jerseys are small, docile and deer-like.

Mrs. Wheaton investigated matters of both life and death for the herd during these weeks: George Wild made several trips to Boston to discuss, purchase and sell cows; traveled to Tewksbury regarding a bull (note Eliza uses the word “sire”); and brought poor Lottie to the slaughterhouse. Lacking a servant to do the work, Eliza churned and worked many pounds of butter.

In the cellar of Mrs. Wheaton house, the water cistern kept the adjacent “milk room” cool. Here the day’s production of milk was stored for 12-15 hours in an aging tank while the cream rose to the surface.  The cream was skimmed into a churn, and then began the arduous task of keeping the churn moving until the butter globules formed and solidified. Once the butterfat was drained off, the butter was placed on a slanted board and worked to remove all water, create a consistent texture, and disperse the added salt throughout the product.

Scotch hands

Wooden paddles, or "Scotch hands", used to work butter.

Using “Scotch hands”, the butter was patted into a layer, folded over and patted again. The butter was then wrapped in “cream cloth” (Eliza paid J.R.Rogerson’s store 65¢ for five yards of what we would probably call cheesecloth), washed in spring water, pressed and allowed to dry. Then it was shaped into useable, and sellable, portions, or “lumps” and wrapped in butter cloth.

As if making butter wasn’t enough, Eliza apparently also made, rather than purchased, some of her own soap.  Home-based soap making required multiple steps and long-term planning. The ashes of hard wood burned in the stove or fireplace were saved in an ash barrel.  Water poured over the ashes, strained, and collected formed the necessary lye. The excess fat from slaughtered animals was saved and rendered in an iron pot over a fire. The lye was added to the rendered lard and stirred until it thickened and could be poured into molds. The amount of lye in the mixture determined how caustic the soap would be, and the process could be dangerous, as lye can burn the skin and eyes.

Cutting soap into bars

Cutting soap blocks into bars.

Although we don't know if Eliza actually undertook the entire process herself, according to her diary entry she did cut the larger pieces that had hardened in the mold into hand-sized bars.

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