Lessons from Emma

My great grandma, Emma, was amazing.

Not only did she travel to America with her mom and brothers in the 1880’s from Sweden, she worked in Lincoln, Nebraska, likely as a house servant, to send money for her girl friend to also come to America.

When she was a mother, she wanted her daughters to learn music, so she sold eggs and butter to save the money. Around 1910, a pump organ cost $650; $16,000 in today’s money!

How much butter and eggs did she have to sell and for how long?


A word math problem.

I used to hate these and cry and watch ScoobyDoo until I got into trouble…

Now, I’m weird.

I want to know.

It took some digging to find this information just on butter.

What kind of cows did they likely have? In Nebraska, probably Holsteins.

How much milk/day does a Holstein make? 6.3 gallons

How much of that is cream? I couldn’t find that but I did find that in Guernseys, one needs 4 gallons of milk for 1lb. of butter. Calves only drink 1 gal/day so there is plenty left over for butter.

Butter sold for $0.26/lb or $7 in today’s money. She probably had to take about 30% less if selling to a grocer. Probably $0.18/lb

Most farms granted were 160 acres at the equivalent of $29/acre in today’s $ due to the Homesteading act of 1862. (The Pawnee tribe of Nebraska were “relocated” to Oklahoma by 1833).

Back to butter and about 60 years later..

With 160 acres, how many cows could my great grandparents have had assuming it was plowed pastureland? 2 acres/cow calf pair.

20% of that acreage unusable-house, barn, gulleys, water tanks (ponds). 160-32=128

Pastures have to have time to regrow. Usually done in 3 rotating paddocks. 128/3=43 acres

43 acres*1 milk cow/2acres=21 milking cows with 21 calves.

Write down the math:
21 milking cows
5 gallons/milk/day
(baby drinks just 1)
4gal milk/1lb butter.

In chemistry, there is a cool math method used to balance formulas.

Nutty Professor. Paramount Pictures.1963.

You try to cancel out each unit where possible:

21 cows
5 gal milk/1 cow
1lb butter/4 gal milk

26 lbs butter/day!

In the best case scenario, If she sold this much butter, she could have saved for about 20 weeks or 5 months for the organ-fall and spring when the cows would have been most productive.

What’s more realistic?

How on earth could she manage 21 cows?

It takes 1 hour to milk and 30 minutes to churn.

Plus housekeeping-laundry, meals, kids, ah!

She had to have help. Young kids were perfect for this and she had an 8 year old and a 10 year old girl by 1910 who probably milked 5 hours/day each (working hard as kids was passed down. My first job aside from chores was babysitting at age 9).

Realistically, they probably had 10 cows.
The math again…
10cows*5gl milk/cow
1lb butter/4gal milk
12.5 lbs butter/day

To get to $650…
41 weeks

So, realistically, it may have taken 2-5 years to save since there were probably other chores, summer and winter effects on milk production, tending to chickens, canning, etc.

Early in the 20th century, people worked 16 hour days, kids too.

I understand from my cousin, Jean, that Emma had a very thick Swedish accent. Emma called her “Yean” and would probably scoff at me complaining about going into Costco and hailing Instacart.

Or perhaps she would be amazed that her great “grantdotter” is a scientist, a writer, a researcher and who now enjoys math.

I like to think it’s the latter.


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