butter display from ealing branch.

Butter window display from Ealing branch.
Butter was one of the first products sold by Sainsbury's. By 1900 each shop sold at least four kinds of butter and three of margarine.

Butter and margarine were delivered to the stores in bulk. Dutch and Danish butter arrived packed in wooden casks which contained 112 lbs (50kg) Sainsbury's was the first British retailer to sell Dutch butter, and to require suppliers to mark each cask with the date of production. Most butter was sold within a week of manufacture.

To ensure that the butter was kept cool it was stored in the basement cold store and brought up to the shop as required. The shops had no refrigerators in 1890: the cold store was chilled by ice delivered by the North Pole Ice Company.


1914 diagram for butter cutting.

1914 diagram for butter cutting.
Deliveries of butter were made every day from the depot to the shops. It was the duty of the 'first butterman' (the most senior assistant on the butter counter) to taste a sample from each cask to ensure that it met Sainsbury's standards of quality and freshness.

The butter was turned out of its cask and carefully marked before being cut with a wire. It was then carried upstairs in large blocks on a 'butter board' ready for 'knocking up' into portions at the counter.

beater and slice

Butter beater and slice.
Each customer's order was individually prepared: you could buy as little as 2oz (56g). The butter was worked to the correct weight using a hardwood beater and slice. The grooved beater was used to hold the butter firmly and the slice was used to cut the portions to the correct weight. The slice had a fine edge which was sharpened using a piece of glass. Beaters and slices were scrubbed several times a day.

The butter was neatly wrapped in greaseproof and brown paper and tied with string. Each package of butter contained a label bearing its country of origin, and each pack of margarine bore a greaseproof label indicating the type.

advertisement for sainsbury's margarine, c1913.

Advertisement for Sainsbury's margarine, c1913.
The art of the 'butterman' required dexterity and Sainsbury's was quick to demonstrate these talents by positioning buttermen at the top of the counters close to the window where passers-by could see their deft display.

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Copyright J Sainsbury plc, 2000.

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