Every once in a while, while browsing in an antique shop, you may come across a rust-covered, intricately packed tool that you're not even quite sure what it is. Yet, many of these common farm aids, like antique cream separators, were once important tools that would've been a staple in every country kitchen from decades past. However, you don't have to have an abundance of dairy milk to be able to breathe new life into these old collectibles.
What Is a Cream Separator and How Does It Work?
A cream separator was used to separate the cream from the milk after the milking was finished. These machines used centrifugal force to send the cream and the milk to separate spouts where each by-product flowed into its own containers.
The person operating the separator, usually a farmer's spouse or child, would turn a handle around and around. The cranking created a powerful spin that generated thousands of RPMs and in turn spun the container around and caused the milk to be pulled against the walls of the separator while the cream, which was lighter, collected in the center. These separators came in a variety of sizes from small tabletop models for small farms to huge floor models for larger dairies.
Cream Separator Technology Throughout History
Before the cream separator was invented, farmers would allow the milk to sit for a period until the cream rose to the top of the milk and could be skimmed off, hence the age-old sayings like "the cream always rises to the top." This was a time-consuming process, and it increased the chances that the milk would be contaminated.
The first formal separators that were developed amounted to little more than a container with a nozzle at the bottom and a window on the side. The milk was put into the container and then allowed to stand for a period of time. This allowed the cream to rise to the top. Then the nozzle was opened, and the milk drained off into another container. The person operating the nozzle could watch in the window to see when the milk was completely gone and only the cream was left.
Following this invention was the centrifugal separator which was popularized by Gustaf de Laval. His product made it possible to separate the cream and milk quickly and easily, reducing the risk of spoilage or contaminants getting in the milk. However, he wasn't actually the original inventor. There were several patents that were registered before his was, and it was his ability to get his products into the general populace's hands that made his name synonymous with cream separators for decades.
Important Parts of the Separator
Since not many collectors are familiar with how these antique cream separators and their inner workings, it can be hard for them to tell if a separator in consideration is fully functional. Thus, here is a list of basic parts that most of these machines which you can reference in your own separator collecting adventures.
- Bowl - the middle of the separator
- Bowl chamber - holds the bowl
- Cream spout - the spout where the cream flows out
- Float - may be round or flat
- Regulating cover - houses the float
- Skim spout - the spout where the milk comes out
- Spindle - the part of the machine that turns the bowl
- Supply can - holds the milk
Resources for Antique Cream Separators
Over the past two centuries, there were hundreds of models of cream separators produced. Generally, they're pretty easy to find once you know what you are looking for. Whether you choose a tabletop version or a floor model will depend on your home, your decorating scheme, and the look you want to achieve. Most homes today aren't going to have room for an antique cream separator that's four feet tall, so modern collectors tend to gravitate towards tabletop models over the fuller size editions.
Antique Cream Separators' Values
Interestingly, antique and vintage domestic goods are in pretty high demand in the current collectors' market. From vintage potato mashers to cream separators, you can find all sorts of kitchen goodies online and in stores. However, fully functioning cream separators themselves from before the 1950s are really difficult to find. When you do get one of these remarkable finds, usually you'll come across them priced anywhere between $100-$350. Typically, the larger the device, the bigger the price, and industrial cream separators are worth more than table-top ones meant for homemade use. For instance, here are two different types of cream separators that recently sold at auction:
- Antique Royal Blue bench model cream separator - Sold for around $99.99
- Antique De Laval No. 15 cream separator and miscellaneous components - Sold for $159
Yet, when it comes to antique cream separators, the dairy industry spared no expense in launching a wide advertising campaign with some brand's products surviving to today where you can now find them online and in antique stores across the country. From pins, signs, match holders, and calendars, there's a whole host of funky things for you to collect. Generally, De Laval is the brand you'll find most frequently, and you get these items for anywhere between $20-$300, depending on their rarity and age. For instance, these promotional goods were all listed recently at auction:
- 1932 De Laval diary calendar - Listed for $25
- Antique De Laval cream separators product catalog - Listed for $125
- Early 20th century De Laval cream separator promotional match holder - Listed for $225
Where to Find Antique Separators
If you live in the Midwest, you may be lucky enough to find one in the attic or a neighbor's barn. Since this area of the country had a lot of dairy farms, there are often at least a few separators at any garage sale you go to. Of course, antique shops are a great place to find these remnants of pastoral America.
Other places to look for these separators include:
More Information About Collecting Separators
If you want to learn more about separators and talk to people who're also collecting them, you may want to join a chat board or collector's club specializing in these farming antiques. A few of the places you can visit to get advice from fellow collectors and information about other antique farm products are:
- Cream Separator Gallery - This website has numerous images as well as articles, a chat board, a for sale area, and other important information for collectors.
- Doug and Linda's Dairy Antique Site - This website has helpful information and images for several types of dairy related antiques.
- Farm Collector - This website has a wealth of information for people who collect old farming equipment, including separators.
Be the Cat That Gets the Cream
Society isn't so far removed from the agricultural era that people don't find it interesting to look at old farm tools and to try to figure out what they were used for. While people few and far between are still using table-top cream separators in their homes, there's always a place in the modern home to pay homage to the farmhouse aesthetic, and owning one of these antique cream separators can help you achieve the right balance between rustic and modern in your home.