The History of Pennsylvania's Colonial Dairy Trade
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The History of Pennsylvania's Colonial Dairy Trade

Jun 19, 2023

This is the second installment in a series of columns about dairying in Colonial Pennsylvania. The first can be read here.

You may be surprised to learn of the extent of dairy trade from Pennsylvania during Colonial times. It ranged from coastal colonies to the West Indies and expanded after the American Revolution.

In Pennsylvania at that time, the center of trade was in Philadelphia.

I want to clarify something from my last column. Not all Colonial farmers were as advanced as those mentioned who were involved in irrigation and sophisticated (for the day) husbandry practices. Most did not view dairying as a commercial enterprise. Those who produced the most milk generally processed milk, butter and cheese for sale, but many farmers only produced enough for use by their families.

For those who did engage in production for sale, family and hired help were often involved in the processing businesses, which were usually managed by wives.

On small farms with just a few cows, it often took more than one or two days of milking to produce enough cream to make butter for household use. This did present problems in keeping the cream fresh or properly soured to produce the best butter. It explains why only farms with higher production, comparatively, could make butter and cheese for resale purposes.

Exported butter required some chemical preservation in order for it to be kept fresh. I found one common recipe for a preservative that consisted of a mix of 2 parts salt, 1 part sugar, and 1 part saltpeter. One ounce of this preservative was added to 1 pound of butter and then this butter would supposedly be preserved for three years. Prior to consumption, it had to be washed several times with milk and warm water.

I’m not certain what I think of that and hope that the buyers either had knowledge or were provided instructions on how to properly wash the butter before use. I can’t imagine how it must have tasted.

Of course, the major consequence of poor preservation and packing of butter was low resale price. Some of the reasons cited in a 1790 publication of the New Jersey Almanac were failure to remove all the buttermilk, putting too much salt in between layers of butter in the barrels, not using a suitable form of salt, and not soaking the kegs with salt brine prior to packing which would impart a woody flavor to the butter.

To counteract bad practices and keep the good reputation of the city’s products, a 1789 Philadelphia ordinance regulated how butter for export was to be preserved and packed to ensure it would be one of the least perishable food products sold from the city and its surroundings.

We could say that evidence from the time indicates that perishability set practical limits of trade.

It was a little more difficult to master cheesemaking for export. Success was often tied to the skills of the dairywomen in the preparation of rennet, an enzyme found in both dried and fresh stomach linings of calves that causes milk curds to coagulate. It was said that rennet problems were the cause of bad cheese — too little produced no coagulation, too much ruined the cheese.

Colonial cheesemakers added salt, marigold petals, cochineal (extract from an insect), annatto (a dye from fruit) or carrot juice for color, and possibly some herbs for flavor with the rennet. After curds formed, they were covered with whey. After about 15 minutes, the curds were placed in a cheese press. Pressure increased over a period of a few days to remove the whey.

The aging process could take up to two years, during which time all sorts of insects, rodents, mold and other undesirable things could ruin the cheese. Dairywomen often coated the cheese with butter to form a protective layer. Sometimes the cheese was covered with saltpeter and ashes, but this did take away some of the flavor.

The cheese made specifically for export was scalded periodically to toughen its rind for preservation. It was also believed that low-fat cheese was best for export.

Between 1768 and 1772, nearly twice as much cheese was sent to areas along the American East Coast as was exported to the West Indies or other distant lands. Records show that in just two years, Philadelphia shipped 38,420 pounds of cheese and 45,610 pounds of butter to coastal ports. Exports reached a high point until European powers were able to reestablish trade connections with their colonies in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

Invaluable lessons were learned. Indeed, the dairywomen were highly skilled for the time in knowledge of rudimentary bacteriology and production of a quality, marketable product.

Where preservation, processing and foreign trade were the keys to 18th century marketing of dairy products, urban markets and transportation were keys to dairying for the period of 1850 and beyond. Thanks to the early pioneers of dairy trade in the commonwealth, we have maintained a rich heritage of butter, cheese and other products for sale in places beyond our borders.

The Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board is always available to respond to questions and concerns. I can be reached at 717-210-8244 or by email at [email protected].

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