The great butter quarter mystery

When I moved to Monterey here from Cleveland nearly three years ago, one of the first things I noticed was the difference in butter sizes. A one pound pack of butter comes in four quarters but the length of each quarter was less and the girth greater for the Monterey butter than for the Cleveland butter. The butter dish I bought seemed designed for the Cleveland dimensions in that the sides of the sticks in Monterey just barely fit under the cover while there was plenty of space at the two long ends. The only exception I have found is when some manufacturers break the butter up into eight segments. When you put two of the smaller segments end to end, you get the size of the quarters I had been used to.

At first I was puzzled by this and wondered whether I had just bought a brand of butter that was idiosyncratic in the butter cutting machine it used. But no. All the brands seemed to be the same stubbier size. I put that down to one of the great mysteries of life but then came across this article that explains how this difference came about.

Indeed, butter on the East Coast tends to be sold in long and narrow sticks, while on the West Coast, the sticks are shorter and wider (and sometimes called “stubbies”).

The gist (or shall we say the long and skinny) is that early 20th century butter was sold in 1-pound blocks, in most cases. In 1907, a New Orleans-based chef asked his butter supplier, Swift & C., to give him the product in quarter-pound sticks instead.

The concept clearly caught on. Over time, these skinny East Coast sticks of butter came to be known as Elgin sticks after Elgin Butter Co. in Elgin, Illinois, which was once known as the butter capital of the world. The Elgin Butter Co. manufactured the widely used butter press (the Elgin Butter Cutter) that standardized the shape and size.

Although the eastern side of the U.S. dominated the dairy industry for a long time, its western counterpart decided to ramp up production in the 1960s. But it didn’t use those Elgin-style machines.

So, as John Bruhn ― former director of the Dairy Research and Information Center at the University of California, Davis ― told “Marketplace,” “the size of the cube you see in the West is a result of newer equipment purchased at the time to package the butter.” Basically, their new machines made the stubbier sticks known as “West Coast butter.”

The article does not, however, explain why the butter people on the west coast decided to use different dimensions from the one that had been in use for over half a century. I cannot think of any compelling reason. After all, this did not take place way back when all production was local. By the time of the 1960s there would surely have been a national market for many producers of products. And while some of the brands in the supermarket I have found only after moving to Monterey and are presumably just aimed at the west coast market, others are national brands. Why would they make different sizes for the east and west coasts? And where in the country is the dividing line where one size shifts to the other?

Apparently you can buy different butter dishes that are meant to accommodate the west coast size and there are even dishes that are designed for both sizes.

According to the article, many people on both coasts are completely taken by surprise when informed that their butter size was not the only one around. That may explain why no one warned me when I came here that buying butter dishes required research into butter quarter sizes and I bought butter dishes made for east coast sizes. As someone who never throws anything away if it can still be used, I am now stuck with a butter/butter dish mismatch until the dishes break.


  1. OverlappingMagisteria says

    This video seems to say the diving line is along the Rockies. And the reason they switched was because the machine’s that make the East Coast size were not available for some reason when the West Coast started manufacturing butter, so they made their own. Not sure if there is more detail about why the machines were unavailable.

  2. William Ubbes says

    So the Peters Package built the Butter Border? Is the bigger butter better? And was Betty involved? For as we all know, Betty had some bitter butter, and Betty had some better butter. Betty put the better butter with the bitter butter to make the bitter butter better, but the bitter butter made the better butter bitter.

  3. Shanti says

    The only solution is to cut the butter to the size of the dish and use it till you get s new butter dish

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    @1 If you buy it in a spray can, you can dispense it in any length and width you wish.

  5. Bruce says

    When I shop at Trader Joe’s, I can buy unsalted and salted butter in one-pound blocks from Ireland, France, or New Zealand. All of those butters are from grass-fed cows, instead of the cheaper butter from unnaturally grain-fed cows. While it’s just a theory that this affects the butter quality, I feel that I am fortunate and rich enough to treat myself to the better butter. I care more about the food quality than the convenience. Although I admit that it would be convenient if one could buy all of one’s foods in spray cans, ideally single serving sized.

  6. Holms says

    This reminds me of the time I discovered some regions of the world sell milk in a bag rather than in a carton or bottle.

  7. billseymour says

    On a related note, I can’t seem to find milk in the good old quart-sized waxed paper containers any more.  The only packages I can find are half-gallon plastic jugs.

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    @10: Technically we don’t. If you read the labels carefully you can introduce yourself to the concepts of “cheese food” and “cheese product.”

  9. John Morales says


    Who keeps butter in a dish ?

    People who follow Anglic traditions and live in a moderate climate.

    It lets you spread it easily on soft bread and the like, and takes a while to go rancid.
    Covered dish, too. Don’t want flies and whatnot on the butter…

    (I don’t use butter other than for cooking, so I don’t do that, myself)

    What gets me is the concept of using the entire contents of the package to put on the dish. Must be a USA thing… here, when it’s done, it’s a pat of butter (i.e. a small portion).
    Again: rancidity.

  10. says

    All of those butters are from grass-fed cows, instead of the cheaper butter from unnaturally grain-fed cows. While it’s just a theory that this affects the butter quality,

    Some friends and I did blind taste tests (Kerrygold V Land Of Lakes) and reliably picked the Irish butter as better. Your results may vary.

  11. jrkrideau says

    I *think* I can buy butter in sticks but it’s unusual to see in my part of Ontario. I always found it strange that my US relations always had sticks of butter. We get a 454gram (1 lb) brick. As a butter dish, I use a Chinese rice bowl.

    @ 11 billseymour
    I just bought a 1 litre carton of milk yesterday after I had used up the last bag of milk in the fridge.

  12. Heidi Nemeth says

    I live in a highly diverse but predominantly East Asian community in New York City. The local supermarket sells butter in both the East Coast long quarters and West Coast stubby quarters. I wonder if the old equipment for making the East Coast long quarters is irreplaceable and the West Coast stubbies are taking over? Or is my neighborhood made up of enough people accustomed to West Coast stubbies that it is worthwhile for the supermarket to cater to their tastes?

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