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Corn Palaces and Butter Queens

A History of Crop Art and Dairy Sculpture

Pamela H. Simpson

Publication Year: 2012

Teddy Roosevelt’s head sculpted from butter. The Liberty Bell replicated in oranges. The Sioux City Corn Palace of 1891 encased with corn, grains, and grasses and stretching for two city blocks—with a trolley line running down its center. Between 1870 and 1930, from county and state fairs to the world’s fairs, large exhibition buildings were covered with grains, fruits, and vegetables to declare in no uncertain terms the rich agricultural abundance of the United States. At the same fairs—but on a more intimate level—ice-cooled cases enticed fairgoers to marvel at an array of butter sculpture models including cows, buildings, flowers, and politicians, all proclaiming the rich bounty and unending promise held by the region.

Often viewed as mere humorous novelties—fun and folksy, but not worthy of serious consideration—these lively forms of American art are described by Pamela H. Simpson in a fascinating and comprehensive history. From the pioneering cereal architecture of Henry Worrall at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition to the vast corn palaces displayed in Sioux City, Iowa, and elsewhere between 1877 and 1891, Simpson brings to life these dazzling large-scale displays in turn-of-the-century American fairs and festivals. She guides readers through the fascinating forms of crop art and butter sculpture, as they grew from state and regional fairs to a significant place at the major international exhibitions. The Minnesota State Fair’s Princess Kay of the Milky Way contest, Lillian Colton’s famed pictorial seed art, and the work of Iowa’s “butter cow lady,” Norma “Duffy” Lyon, are modern versions of this tradition.

Beautifully illustrated with a bounty of never-before-seen archival images, Corn Palaces and Butter Queens is an accessible history of one of America’s most unique and beguiling Midwestern art forms—an amusing and peculiar phenomenon that profoundly affected the way Americans saw themselves and their country’s potential during times of drought and great depression.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-9

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pp. ix-x

When I tell people I have been working on the history of corn palaces and butter sculpture for the past twelve years, they either say, oh, yes, they have been to Mitchell to see the Corn Palace, or they give me a blank stare and say, “What?” Those two responses summarize what has happened to the history of food art: either people know it through modern...

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pp. xi-xii

Blanche DuBois had it right: one must depend on the kindness of strangers. Once friends are added to the list, quite a group needs to be thanked for help and support during the past twelve years. I start with my own institution, Washington and Lee University, where a series of Glenn and Lenfest grants helped fund research travel and where...

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INTRODUCTION: Corn Palaces, Crop Art, and Butter Sculpture

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pp. xiii-xx

The Sioux City Corn Palace celebration in 1891 opened with a grand parade. Mounted police units, carriages full of city and county officials, and three marching bands accompanied King Corn and Queen Cerea as they made their triumphal way to the palace. James E. Booge, a local businessman who was president of the organizing committee...

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1. Banquet Tables to Trophy Displays

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pp. 1-16

Written long before corn palaces were built on the Great Plains, Hans Sachs’s description of mythical houses made of cake is a reminder that people have been shaping food into fanciful forms for centuries, both through the imagination of folktales and in literal food-art constructions.1 In order to understand...

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2. Cereal Architecture

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pp. 17-51

In 1876, Caroline Dall, a correspondent for a Boston newspaper, wrote a series of articles about the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Among the many exhibits she saw, she singled out the Kansas display as the “finest State show on the grounds.” She described the extraordinary nature of the decorations: “You go in under...

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3. Butter Cows and Butter Ladies

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pp. 53-83

Visitors to the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia saw much to amaze them, but one item that drew their attention was a bas-relief portrait, Dreaming Iolanthe (Figure 3.1). The head-and-shoulders rendering of the heroine of a popular nineteenth-century lyric drama was repeatedly praised as “the most beautiful...

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4. America’s World’s Fairs, 1893–1915

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pp. 85-111

In October 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition Illustrated, one of the newspapers devoted to the Chicago World’s Fair, reported on the exhibits in the Palace of Agriculture, saying that “never before at an exhibition in this or any other country has there been such a widespread [use of the ornamental] work done in grains and grasses.” The writer...

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5. Boosters, Saracens, and Indians

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pp. 113-138

Ignatius Donnelly’s 1864 speech before the U.S. House of Representatives in support of an immigration bill incorporates many of the ideas fundamental to the period’s western expansion: that America had plenty of unsettled land available (a belief Native Americans would contest); that immigration from Europe was necessary...

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6. Mrs. Brooks and President Roosevelt

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pp. 139-160

Butter sculpture is a medium strongly associated with women. Traditionally, women were in charge of butter making, and they were predominant among the early butter sculptors. Even the nineteenth-century language used to describe butter and butter sculpture evoked feminine ideals. Connections between...

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7. An Ongoing Tradition

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pp. 161-179

This study primarily focuses on the period between 1870 and 1930, but the traditions of cereal architecture, crop art, and butter sculpture persisted into the second half of the twentieth century. Oscar Howe made important contributions to the iconography of the origins of corn at the Mitchell Corn Palace...

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CONCLUSION: Icons of Abundance

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pp. 181-195

What lessons are there in this history? This study of corn palaces, crop art, and butter sculpture has addressed questions about the origin of food constructions, the development of butter and crop art in the 1870–1930 period, their meaning in the context of midwestern expansion, and their survival in the latter twentieth century...


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pp. 197-227

Publication History

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pp. 229-251

Index [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 231-248

E-ISBN-13: 9780816681433
E-ISBN-10: 0816681430
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816676200

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2012