Caroline Shawk Brooks was born and spent her childhood in Cincinnati, showing little evidence of the talent later to build her fame. She moved south after her 1862 marriage to a farmer named Samuel Brooks, who served in the Union Army during the Civil War and then settled in Arkansas to raised cotton.
His cotton crop failed in 1867, and Caroline looked to butter as a way to maintain an income stream. It was expected back then to serve butter molded into various shapes—vintage butter molds are common in antique shops today—but Caroline provided an extra touch. Instead of molding butter, she sculpted it. After some animal sculptures sold well, she turned to human faces. Caroline’s butter sculptures were popular in the region.
In 1873, as her contribution to a church fair, Caroline crafted an idealized portrait in butter. Samuel Brooks was so taken by his wife’s creation that he carried it by horseback himself to ensure it would arrive intact at the church. Bidding on Caroline’s sculpture rose so high that her church was able to fix the church roof. Her success at the fair led to a couple of commissions, notably one that was displayed to some acclaim in Memphis.
Later that year, Caroline made the decision that would set the course of her life. A friend had loaned her a translation of Henrik Hertz’s lyric drama, King Rene’s Daughter. Hertz tells the story of Iolanthe, daughter of a doting king, who conceals from her any awareness that she is, in fact, blind. Romance and magical cures ensue.
As Caroline told it, she had the choice one day of making butter or reading the book, and decided to read the book. So taken was she with the tale of Iolanthe, that she grabbed her butter churn and whipped enough butter to sculpt a bust of Princess Iolanthe. It became the work that made her reputation.
Caroline carried her Iolanthe to Cincinnati early in 1874 to show her relatives. They convinced her to put it on public display. William Wiswell enthusiastically agreed to put Caroline’s sculpture on display in his Fourth Street Art Hall where, in just two weeks, more than 2,000 customers paid 25 cents to view it. Local critics were ecstatic. Here is The Cincinnati Gazette [February 28, 1874]:
“The bust of a sleeping girl, modeled in butter by Mrs. Caroline S. Brooks, a farmer’s wife in Arkansas, now on exhibition in Wiswell’s building, is a marvel of artistic execution and of beauty.”
And The Commercial Tribune [February 25, 1874], reprinted in The New York Times:
“Mrs. Brooks presents a bust of the innocent and beautiful girl as she lies sleeping and almost glorified in happy dreams. The bust, which is somewhat less than life size, is in high relief in the concavity of a large tin pan. The head is but slightly turned from a full front view. The butter is almost white. Its translucence gives to the complexion a richness beyond alabaster, and a softness and smoothness that are very striking. The profile is pure Grecian. The hair ripples back in waves, and the lips are parted with a heavenly smile. The harmony of the face is exquisite.”
Reports of the Cincinnati exhibition reached newspapers across the country. Someone took stereographic photos so Caroline’s work could be appreciated in the three-dimensional medium of the stereopticon.
Caroline, inspired by the acclaim, created a full Iolanthe, from her head to her slippered toes, and gained entrance to the Philadelphia Centennial exhibition in 1876, Chicago’s Columbian exhibition of 1893, and galleries in New York, Paris, and San Francisco.
Most news accounts expressed surprise that Caroline had little or no artistic training and used butter-making tools—a paddle, broom straw, cedar stick, and pencil—to create her sculptures rather than a sculptor’s implements. So many people were convinced that someone else must have created these works that Caroline gave demonstrations at most of her exhibitions, charging viewers 10 cents to watch her create in real time.
Although Caroline never abandoned butter as a medium, she eventually began producing work in marble and moved to Italy for some years to study that material. Most sculptors, then and today, did not actually work directly with marble, but produced a plaster model that skilled artisans transferred to stone. Caroline created her ideas in butter, then produced plaster casts for the marble workers.
At least two of Caroline’s marble creations found their way back to Cincinnati. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer, Jennie Spencer Smith of Avondale acquired a marble “Iolanthe” in 1896. Mary Allen, wife of Glendale druggist Charles Henry Allen, surprised her husband in 1883 with a marble bust of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish theologian, philosopher, and mystic. The Allens were congregants at Glendale’s Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem.
About the time Caroline married Samuel Brooks, her parents moved from Cincinnati to St. Louis, and eventually Caroline relocated there as well. She spent the last decades of her life in Missouri, and her death in 1913 went unreported.
Not much of Caroline Brooks’s art has survived. The art of butter sculpting has continued primarily as a publicity gimmick for the dairy industry.
Modern scholars, notably Pamela H. Simpson (1946-2011) of Washington and Lee University, saw in Brooks a proto-feminist icon. Simpson wrote:
“Nevertheless, her assertion that women could make art out of the humble products available to them has a particularly feminist ring to the modern ear, and it apparently did so to the women of 1893 as well. Brooks was a role model.”