In the late 1800's milk fat or cream was the main reason for milking cows. Cream contained most of the energy of the milk and was used to make butter. Butter also was less perishable than fluid milk. The separated skim milk was commonly used to feed livestock. Thus before one could make butter the cream needed to be concentrated or separated from the milk. There were four main ways of separating cream. Three of these methods relied on gravity. They were shallow pan setting, deep can setting and water dilution. The fourth method was centrifugal separation.
One of the earliest ways to separate the cream from the skim was to pour the milk into shallow pans, 2 to 4 inches deep, called setting pans. The pans were placed in a cool, clean room and after letting it sit for 36 hours or more the cream was skimmed off the top using cream skimmers like these. It was very hard to do a lot of milk at one time and much of the cream was not recovered. Under ideal conditions this method left at least 10-15% of the cream behind in the skim milk and possibly as much as a third. Ten percent of a single cows production amounted to $15 dollars per year in the early 1900's. With the price of a Sears centrifugal separator starting around 26 dollars in 1908 the pan settling method quickly lost popularity. Quality of the cream and skim milk was also poor with this method. Since the cream sat for long periods at warmer temperatures and with a large surface area exposed to the air there was more opportunity for bacteria to grow and spoilage to begin. Separators being much faster also resulted in greater cream quality.
The next method of separating cream was called the deep setting method. The milk was placed into tall cans like the one shown above. These cans were called shotgun cans and placed in tanks of cold water. These cans were usually about 8 inches in diameter, 20 inches tall and held around four gallons. The small diameter allowed the water to cool the milk quickly and the tall can allowed gravity to better separate the cream. The cooler the water the better the cream would separate and less bacterial growth would occur in the milk. Some dairies used running spring water in their deep setting tanks while others used ice water baths. Although usually these cans were not completely submerged it was important that the lids on the cans sealed out the water so that there was no contamination of the milk. Typically the cans were allowed to set for 18-24 hours and then the cream was dipped off the top. Some cans had glass windows to see the cream line and a valve at the bottom to drain the skim milk. In the deep setting method only 5-15% of the cream was left behind in the skim milk. In their 1897 catalog Sears, Roebuck and Company sold these cream setting cans for 55 cents without a glass sight window and for 60 cents with the window.
One popular deep setting can was the Cooley System, sometimes called the Submerged System. William Cooley of Waterbury, Vermont patented a deep setting can on February 20, 1877. His cans were designed to be completely submerged in water and held 18 quarts. The air that was trapped at the top of the can above the milk actually formed the seal to keep water from leaking into the milk. His cans also had sight glasses and a valve to drain the skim milk from the bottom of the can. He claimed that dipping the cream off the top of the can just disturbed the cream and mixed it back into the milk. He recommended a water temperature of 40-50 degrees, with 45 degrees giving the most satisfactory results. He said that with his system if the cans were filled after the morning milking the cream could be separated and the cans cleaned prior to that evenings milking. This would greatly reduce the number of cans needed by a dairyman. Advertisements for Cooley's system claimed that it produced enough extra money from the milk to pay for itself every 30 days. Sears, Roebuck and Company sold the Cooley cans in their 1897 catalog for $1.75.
This is a Marvel Gravity Cream Separator made by Superior Sheet Metal Works Company of Indianapolis, Indiana. This was a size No. 1 which held 10 gallons. We have also seen Marvel separators advertised in 14 and 18 gallon sizes. Sears and Wards sold their brands in various sizes up to 32 gallons. In addition to gravity, these separators used water to dilute the milk and speed up the separation. The can was half filled with milk, water was added via a tube that allowed it to enter at the bottom of the can below the milk and then the mixture was left undisturbed for one to two hours until the cream rose to the top and the skim milk and water settled. Ice could be used instead of water to speed up the process. The skim milk and water could be then drained out of the valve at the bottom of the can. The two glass windows allowed one to see the cream line.
These were an improvement over settling pans but were still slow and not much cream could be separated at any one time. Also if the water was not of the highest quality bacteria could be introduced into the milk. The volume of the skim milk was doubled and the nutritive value of the skim milk for livestock was diluted by the water. These were also known as dilution separators since one had to add water to the milk to separate it.
This style of cream separator was first patented by Perry Smith on October 9, 1900. Smith was also from Indianapolis, Indiana but we do not know if he or his patent was connected to the Superior Sheet Metal Works Company. Dilution cream separators similar to this sold for $3.19 in the 1908 Sears catalog. They were still listed in the 1951-52 Sears catalog and sold for $6.29.
This is a Sears table top cream separator. This model was called the Sears Economy Chief Junior. This type of cream separator used centrifugal force to separate the lighter cream from the skim milk. The heavier skim milk was thrown outward as the bowl spun and the lighter cream moved towards the center. Click here to see how milk, skim and cream flow through a cone type centrifugal separator. This was a much faster method as well as more of the cream was recovered. A well adjusted centrifugal cream separator could leave less than 1% of the cream behind in the skim milk. Speed had the advantage of reducing bacterial growth and off flavors in the butter. The centrifugal forces actually had a filtering action and removed most of the foreign matter in the cream. Larger quantities of cream could be separated in a shorter time allowing more cows to be milked.
Cream separators first appeared in the 1896 Sears and Roebuck Company catalog. That year they sold the Young America Cream Separator rated at 300 pounds of milk per hour and priced at $97.00. In 1902 Sears advertised their own Sears Cream Separator in 250, 350 and 500 pound/hour sizes. The 350 pound/hour machine was priced at $63.75. This was the start of the Sears line of Economy Cream Separators. This brand name remained in the Sears lineup till 1947. In their 1906 catalog Sears sold the Improved Economy Cream Separator. Again they had three capacities, 300, 400 and 750 pounds/hour. That year the 300 pound/hour separator was offered at $24.95. In ten years the price of a cream separator had been cut to a fourth! That year Sears also offered a two month free trial to test one of their Economy cream separators and they also offered $1000 dollars in gold to any cream separator manufacturer who could make a separator that would out skim the Sears Economy cream separator. In 1908 cream separators were featured in nine pages at the front of the catalog. That year in addition to the Economy model, they added a premium model named the Economy Chief. Both versions were offered in 300, 400 and 600 pound/hour sizes. The price of the 300 pound/hour unit was $26.30 for the Economy and $28.80 for the Economy Chief. That year they also introduced a 20 year guarantee on their Economy cream separators. The 1927 Sears and Roebuck catalog sold the Economy King cream separator. They were offered in 250, 375, 600 and 800 pound/hour sizes. The 375 pound/hour unit was $51.15. That year Sears also offered a lifetime guarantee against defects in workmanship and materials. The end of the Economy brand in 1947 was not the last time Sears sold cream separators. They continued to appear in the Sears catalog under the Farm Master label into the 1950's.
Click here to view a 1906 Kansas State College bulletin on variations in cream from separators. (1.61 MB pdf file)
This is a Montgomery Ward's table top cream separator. This model was the competitor of the Sears model pictured above. The efficiency or the ability to recover more of the cream was a big advertising feature between brands. This model had a small weight on the crank. When the operator was cranking at the correct speed the weight would be thrown outwards. Also notice that the cream and skim spouts are a U shaped trough and not enclosed tubes. This design was more common on later separators and made them easier to inspect and clean. This basic model appeared in the 1940-41 Montgomery Ward catalog for $17.45. The model shown above with the open spouts was sold in the 1953-54 Montgomery Ward catalog and was priced at $37.50. It was rated at 225 pounds of milk per hour.
Montgomery Ward sold centrifugal cream separators as early as their 1894-95 catalog. That year they listed the Safety Hand Separator rated at 300 pounds of milk per hour and priced at $125.00. In the 1895 catalog they sold the Davis Hand Separator in six sizes from 150 to 800 pounds/hour. The price of a 300 pound unit dropped to 107.80 that year. In the early 1900's cream separator manufacturers flourished and prices dropped greatly. In 1922 Montgomery Wards advertised the Sattley brand in 4 sizes from 180 to 475 pounds/hour. The 375 pound machine had now dropped to $64.95.
Montgomery Ward had a business relationship with the Hummer Plow Works of Springfield, Illinois to manufacture many of their cream separators. In many catalogs the factory is listed as being in Springfield, Illinois. In the 1930's Ward's best separators went by the Royal Blue name and in the 1940's the Zephyrator was their top of the line unit. Many of the Zephyrators had streamlined housings and were driven by electric motors. Montgomery Wards still sold cream separators in their 1954-55 catalog.
One interesting device that Montgomery Wards advertised was an attachment to convert a cream separator from being hand cranked to pedal driven, like a bicycle (picture). They called it the New Era Attachment and advertised it in 1906. The tall stand was replaced with a lower one to bring the cream bowl down to waist level, making it easier to fill and making it more stable. Wards advertised this device as their own invention and available from no on else. The price was 5 dollars if one also bought a cream separator from Montgomery Wards and $7.50 if it was purchased alone.
The picture above is a Domo No. 8 cream separator. Domo cream separators were made in Sweden and imported into the United States. This separator has a decal for Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett and Company of Chicago. We think that this must have been the U. S. distributor for these Domo cream separators. We have seen this model advertised in a flyer dated 1937. Domo also made a Domo Jr. model that was a little more common.
Here is a table top cream separator that is a little different. In most cream separators the plane of the drive gear is vertical, however in this model the drive gear lies flat or horizontal. The milk spout actual drained out of the frame rather than above like most separators. This cream separator was called the American Wonder and was made by the American Separator Company located in Bainbridge, New York. The American Wonder cream separator came in three sizes, a No. 10 rated at 125 pounds of milk per hour, a No. 11 rated at 200 pounds and a No. 12 rated at 300 pounds. The separator pictured here is a No. 10. The No. 10 and 11 were similar with the cream supply can mounted on top of the spouts and the valve was at the bottom of the can. The No. 12 had the can off set with the valve on the side of the can. These separators had very ornate decals when they were new. These separators date to the early 1900's as the last patent date listed on the front decal was 1909.