While dairyana collectables are lovely items to have around the country kitchen, they are also a fascinating insight into the social history of the dairies of old. The often romantic view we have of idyllic lives in the countryside, lived at a much slower pace than today does not tell the true story.
Life was hard, the dairy workers would have been up before dawn in all weathers to milk the cows by hand. The full pails would then have to be carried to the dairy where the dairymaids skimmed the cream, churned the butter and made the cheese. Today’s mechanised process and the fact that most of us buy our milk in the supermarket has created an interest in evocative reminders of the dairies of the past.
As museums of rural life have become popular, there has been increased interest in ‘dairyana’, as the tools and implements of dairies have become known. Interior decorators have been quick to pick up on this and antiques fairs and auctioneers have noted the rise in interest in these items.
As early as the 17th century aristocrats began to realise that having your own dairy ensures a constant supply of fresh milk, butter and cheese and many of them installed dairies on their estates. In the 17th century Queen Mary turned part of Hampton Court into a dairy, importing blue and white tiles from Holland and acquired matching blue and white bowls. In the 18th century Marie Antoinette installed a dairy at Rambouillet, using porcelain utensils made by Sèvres.
Wealthy British landowners soon followed suit and at Uppark the dairy was designed by Repton. Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were swept up in the craze and built a dairy at Frogmore, near Windsor, which included a fountain adorned with mermaids and Minton majolica tiles, decorated with sea horses and portraits of the royal children.
It is extremely difficult to find dairy utensils from big famous houses and even copies can cost a princely sum. A 19th century Samson copy of a Sèvres milk pail made for Rambouillet made over £8,000 at auction at Sotheby’s in New York a couple of years ago. If you are interested in dairyana you should look out for 19th and early 20th century pieces used on dairy farms. There is quite a variety to choose from – milking pails made from wood, metal or ceramic, three or four legged milking stools, ladles and small churns.
In the 18th century the milk would be dispensed by maids carrying open pails on yokes, while later large churns were pushed on perambulators or transported by horse and cart. In more urban areas milk vendors toured the streets and buyers would come with jugs or small churns. These are very collectable and look lovely on a kitchen dresser. Implements used to make cream and butter such as milk bowls, skimmers, wooden butter troughs, pats for forming butter into blocks and carved wooden stems for decoration are also highly collectable.
Dating dairyana is very difficult, as few pieces are marked. There are some clues though – if you are interested in wooden butter pats, the older examples will be more intricately carved. Sometimes you will find a dairy name and you can find dates from the local record office. The Victorian and Edwardian advertising wares are extremely popular and enamel signs from the early 1900s to the 1920s can fetch between £600 and £800, sometimes even more.
Inside old dairy shops you would have found metal pails with lids for milk and cream on the counter and little ceramic models of milkmaids. Some of them were highly decorated with colour transfer pictures and they fetch very high prices and can go for over £1,000.
At the cheaper end you can get little transfer-printed stoneware pots that would have contained cream; these can often be bought for as little as £5. Milk bottles are another good start if you want to put together a dairyana collection and you can often buy these for about £10 each. Cow creamers are also a popular collectable and some of them can be had at quite reasonable prices.
If you are interested in dairy collectables you should visit your local auction house as well as antiques and collectors’ fairs and local antique shops. A rummage around the car boot sales could be productive and here you often get the best prices. eBay is also useful for dairy finds. There are a number of specialist dealers in dairyana and if you are looking for more expensive items it is always best to consult a specialist dealer.
Dairyana is a great way to decorate your kitchen if you want to achieve the English country kitchen look. Through clever use of jugs, churns, bowls, pots and pails you can achieve a look that would be envy of many an interior designer.