Below, I discuss both the Canadian and U.S. histories pertaining to the butter tart.*
To my knowledge, the U.S. history has not been previously canvassed, and what I present is “new” in this sense. While I have utilized many sources, the U.S. references were selected mainly from digitized, historical archives of Northeast U.S. newspapers. Despite the regional tilt I believe my survey and conclusions have more general application.
In addition, this tour d’horizon provides an interesting “compare and contrast” with Canadian butter tart history.
Summary of Canadian History
The Canadian history has been discussed in general and specialist culinary books, articles, encyclopedias, blogs, and various online resources. Most are helpful in some way but sometimes contradict each other, or are incomplete.
This account written by the County of Simcoe, Ontario explains well that a “filling for tarts” recipe appeared in the Royal Victoria Cook Book published in Barrie in 1900 by the Royal Victoria Hospital’s Woman’s Auxiliary. The recipe was contributed by a Mrs. Malcolm MacLeod of that city. Her own first name was Mary, all as explained in the link. She did not employ the term butter tarts, but her recipe is clearly that, sans the name.
Her filling of sugar, eggs, butter, and currants baked in pastry shells makes a classic Canadian butter tart albeit countless variations exist. Some use vinegar or lemon juice, some add nuts of some kind, the sucrose content can be from different types of sugars and syrups, and vanilla or other flavouring can be added.
A Toronto “Breakfast TV” journalist recreated this ur-recipe earlier this year. The result (efficiently produced by the unflappable chef!) is clearly the modern butter tart, as earlier researchers have attested. Still, Mary MacLeod did not use the name.
Which is the first print source to do so?
It may be the Vogue Cook Book, which you can read here in fully digitized form. It was published by The News, an evening Toronto newspaper. See pp. 91 and 105 for two butter tart recipes.
Although a copyright or publication year is not stated in the book, the publication month and year are December 1908 according to the analysis of bibliographer Elizabeth Driver in her 2008 Culinary Landmarks: a Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949, see here.
The recipe contributed by “Mrs. G.M.B.” in Toronto is often cited as influential as it sets out, like the 1900 Barrie recipe, the “core” recipe used to this day. The other, from “Clarice” in Plattsville, ON seems eccentric at least in retrospect. Her filling has no egg and a lump of butter is placed over a dry mixture of flour and sugar before baking (a clue to another possible derivation of “butter” in butter tart?).
Still, both recipes use similar albeit not identical ingredients, and both are baked dishes.
A “sugar tarts” recipe from the same Clarice appears on the same page. In effect it is a butterscotch tart, different from the typical butter tart in that the filling, otherwise similar to the other’s, is boiled on the stove and poured into baked shells to cool; there is no baking in the shells. I will revisit this form of tart below in connection with similar American and Canadian versions, some of which are termed butter tarts.
Further, in the undated, second edition of The Beaver Valley Collection of Latest and Best Recipes that appeared sometime between 1907 (first edition) and 1912 (third edition), a Mrs. S. Hooey contributed a recipe for butter tarts. See again E. Driver’s discussion, here.
It is unclear which book holds precedence since the second edition of The Beaver Valley book could have been published before December 1908, although given that the third edition appeared in 1912, it seems more probable the second edition of Beaver Valley appeared after the Vogue Cook Book.
In any case, both are key early texts appearing about the same time. Taken too with the earlier Barrie recipe, E. Driver’s statement that Ontario butter tarts emerged at the turn of the century seems reasonable.
Of course usage was likely older on an oral or unpublished basis, as frequently occurs before someone thinks to write down a recipe.
Next, there is the Canadian Farm Cook Book published in 1911, which set out six recipes seriatum. Each uses sugar, egg, and butter for the filling, and all but one adds currants, a common ingredient in modern butter tarts.
All are from different centres in Ontario. You can read them in the fully-digitized Canadian Farm Cook Book, here.
The Five Roses Cookbook, issued in two editions in 1913 and 1915 by an industrial miller on Lake of the Woods, also contains a butter tart recipe. See, in the digitized 1915 edition, pg. 79. This book helped popularize the dish nationally due to the book’s cross-country distribution. This recent article by Julie Van Rosendaal in Toronto’s The Globe and Mail offers useful background in this regard.
Canadian food authority Elizabeth Baird sets out a recipe for butter tarts on the website of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, here, adapted from the 1913 edition. This version blends some maple syrup in and uses chips of walnut.
After WW I the dish became a mainstay of Ontario baking and, if not a quite a national Canadian specialty, something considerably more than just Ontario’s.
Proximate Origins of the Canadian Butter Tart
As some food historians concur, the Scots Ecclefechan butter tart, aka the Ecclefechan tart, and their boon companion the border tart, are surely the immediate ancestors to Canada’s butter tart.
For the two U.K. types butter seems a constant in the doughs. The fillings usually share a base of eggs, sugar or other sweetening, and butter, with various dried fruits or nuts added for a relish. An acid element seems optional (vinegar, lemon juice), ditto for a spice such as cinnamon.
The Scots cookery authority Catherine Brown gives a recipe for Ecclefechan’s tart in her 2011 book Classic Scots Cookery, here. She also describes the Border tart and states the Ecclefechan butter tart is a variation.
These British forms are known it seems primarily in Scotland but also parts of England. A 1937 recipe in the Australian newspaper Truth for “Old English Butter Tarts” is similar to Ecclefechan’s but more simplified. This modern English butter tarts recipe, from the All Recipes site, is similar to the Australian, and both resemble the Ontario one closely. Further below we cite similar tarts in the U.S., described as English or Welsh, going back to the mid-1900s and possibly earlier.
The line (sorry!) between Border tart and Ecclefechan butter tart seems vague. The London Eats site attempts to draw it, while stating with self-deprecation that the attempt is questionable. The Border tart seems often iced, while the other is not usually although a touch of meringue may be added, or whipped cream as Ms. Brown advises. And the Ecclefechan can, as London Eats confirms, be in tartlet shape while the Border tart seems rarely to be so.
The shortcrust of the Border tart – it seems typically a shortcrust – often incorporates almonds. The Ecclefechan does not, in line with practice in Ontario.
In general, recipes for both Border and Ecclefechan tarts when compared to the 1857 description of butter tart mentioned below reflect the same kind of dish: a pastry meant to hold an egg-enriched sugar and butter blend further enhanced with nuts or preserved fruit. This goes some way in our view to showing the butter tart – that terminology – came first.
By virtue of using typically both nuts and fruit, and mixed fruit at that, the Ecclefechan tart seems “busier” than the typical butter tart of Canada. Many Ecclefechan recipes also describe a flattish, flan-shape. The commonly used shortcrust for this has a different texture than the flaky pie pastry of the best Ontario tarts: thicker and more “sandy” (although some people prefer it).
But Ecclefechan tarts are also made in small, “tartlet” quantities, where the result looks very close to Ontario’s. See e.g. here, from the All Recipes site again, or the Walker’s commercial line of boxed Ecclefechan tarts. And pastry shells would have varied in composition surely (pie crust, shortbread, etc.) depending on the family, local practice, and quality; at least in Canada that has occurred.
The 1937 Australian example calls for using a “patty tin“, which produces small tarts via the rounded or fluted indentations. Occasionally too in Canada whole pies, or square pies, are made that otherwise use standard butter tart ingredients. This Alberta recipe for a pan of square butter tarts, from the site A Pretty Life in the Suburbs, uses a shortbread crust instead of the typical pie crust. Many Toronto bakers sell a form of square butter tart, as well.
Another recipe for the Ecclefechan tart, sourced by U.K. travel author Bruce Stannard from a noted hotel, is similar to Ms. Brown’s except using the tartlet shape.
Hence, shape or size are not of themselves a reliable demarcation between the U.K. and Canadian butter tarts.
The attractive “Cook’s Info” culinary site, in useful historical notes, argues that our butter tart and American pecan pie both derive from the U.K. butter tart. It further makes the point that some examples of the Scots and Canadian traditions are indistinguishable, which to my mind is decisive.
There is yet more. A strong Scottish and English emigration to Ontario followed the early influx of American Loyalists, including to Barrie. And the surnames MacLeod and Hooey seem Scots or at least Gaelic.
The British influence on the Ontario butter tart seems inevitable even as the latter evolved into particularly toothsome form.
A New Idea Regarding the Ultimate Origins of the U.K. Butter and Border Tarts
In preliminary notes in 2016 I discussed an entry in the 1857 Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English by Thomas Wright stating that a centuries-old butter tart was “barded” – layered with pastry on top, not just underneath.
I hypothesized that “barded”, by corruption of pronunciation over time, became butter and/or border in the tarts so-named, a novel suggestion to my knowledge. The hypothesis that a “barded tart” is the true ancestor of the U.K. butter and border tarts and hence of our Canadian one merits at a minimum further exploration.
A theory current in food history circles for some years is that U.K. butter tarts and the similar border tarts originated in the Borders country that straddles the boundary of Scotland and England, and that butter is a corruption of border, as butter is no more important in these tarts than in much other confectionary. This theory is attractive, but all avenues need further exploration to aim at more conclusiveness on these questions.
For example, unlike for the butter tart, it appears there is no documentation for the border tart before 1900, which suggests possibly the butter tart came first and inspired the other, presumably by corruption of the distinguishing term.
United States References to Butter Tarts – General
It turns out there is a great number of references in the U.S. press to butter tarts, some of which precede the first Canadian citations.
I consider below a representative number, and whether these tarts are the same as the Canadian one. In brief, many clearly are not, some clearly are but were borrowed from Canada due to cross-border contact, and others are more ambiguous. It is likely the same kind of tart as in Canada existed episodically in the U.S., but directly from a U.K. influence.
References to Butter Torte and Butter Tart in that connection
What is a butter torte, and why is it relevant to this discussion? A butter torte, sometimes called buttercream torte, is a German or Central European cake, generally multiple layers interleaved with buttercream or another butter-and-sugar-based filling. The Canadian website Dairy Goodness offers a good recipe for a mocha version.
A butter torte was also sometimes a puff pastry-based confection in which a fruit filling provided a signature flavour.
For good historical background on the German and Austrian tortes, see Michael Krondl at pp. 280-283 of his 2011 Sweet Inventions: a History of Dessert.
The United States Cookbook by William Vollmer was published in numerous editions in Philadelphia including in 1865. It was reissued in 1893, and you can read a number of butter torte/butter tart recipes in that version, i.e., appearing alternately in German and English.
Vollmer wrote the book in German and a translator (see title page) rendered each page successively in English. That is, the English version of butter torte is rendered as butter tart.
See Vollmer’s recipes for these at pp. 149-150, here. The fruits specified included apple, raspberry, and currants. In other words: a simple fruit-filled tart known to a number of European cuisines and popularized internationally early.
In Jessup Whitehead’s seventh edition (1894) of his The American Pastry Cook, no reference can be found to the butter torte or butter tart. Whiteheads’ book was directed in part (see title page) to commercial bakeries.
This suggests Vollmer’s version, as his original German text implies, was ethnic in character, not a mainstream type of food.
While clearly different from the British and Canadian butter tarts we mention Vollmer’s “faux” 19th-century version, since subsequent U.S. news ads for “butter tarts” may in some cases be this German specialty, the cake or fruit-in-puff paste tart, especially where German immigrants were the bakers.
Reference to Butter Tart in a French Norman Context
In 1889 a short fictional story appeared in New York’s The Epoch, a topical magazine and journal. It was called “The Uncle From America”, adapted from the French of Emil Souvestre by Isabel Smithson. It states that a “butter-tart” was served to a long-absent uncle visiting relations in Normandy, somewhere near Dieppe. Cider accompanied a sumptuous repast in which the tart figured.
It is clear from the context that this is some type of French pastry tart, probably “au beurre“, even as we cannot trace a contemporary Norman or other French one called “tarte au beurre“. The term clearly has nothing to do with the British and Canadian butter tarts, but I mention it for completeness, especially as the story, a homily, was reprinted many times in the U.S. press. (The uncle is welcomed, as a presumably rich benefactor-to-be, with the best hospitality the hosts can muster, when it turns out he is without resources, however it all ends well).
The Butterscotch Tart
On July 21, 1914 in the Brooklyn, NY Daily Star, a recipe appeared for “butter tarts”:
One egg, one cup of granulated sugar, butter size of an egg, one-fourth cup of milk, one cup currants. Put all ingredients together and boil until like soft custard: flavor and cool. When cool, put in tart shells and serve.
This recipe appeared the same year in different parts of the northeast, including in Buffalo, NY. In a recipe in the Brooklyn Daily Star in April 1914 for the same butter tart, it was attributed to the Los Angeles Express. This dish, while using similar ingredients to the ordinary butter tart, clearly is a different confection – the different cooking treatment ensures that – yet the fact of sharing the same name with the more familiar butter tart suggests a relationship.
Perhaps the Canadian and U.K. butter tarts were all prepared originally as a butterscotch tart still is, before ovens became common household equipment.
In Flesherton, ON’s The Flesherton Advance on January 6, 1937 two recipes for butter tarts appeared, the classic baked one, and a second similar to the boiled version above but sans the egg. The second was contributed by a resident of Delia, Alberta, the first was local.
Modern recipes for butterscotch tart are easy to find on both sides of the Atlantic, here is one from Nigella Lawson’s website.
Perhaps at some point the butter tart term for simplicity and clarity became associated with the baked butter tart, while the other is called now exclusively butterscotch tart. A search of these respective terms seems to confirm this, but it remains a matter of impression.
I don’t think the butterscotch tarts of America were influenced by the butter tart of Canada, they are too dispersed geographically for that and are documented at about the same time the Canadian butter tart emerged. Why the baked version did not become as popular in the U.S. as Canada is hard to say. I suppose, to mix metaphors, the Americans had other fish to fry.
References to Butter Tarts in Niagara Frontier that Salute Canadian Influence
Throughout the mid- and later-20th century, many recipes for a Canadian-style butter tart appear in Buffalo, NY newspapers or elsewhere in what Empire State residents call, or used to, the Niagara Frontier. Many of these acknowledge Canadian influence, as this one of September 29, 1959 in the Buffalo Courier-Express (it has an interesting feature of a teaspoon of instant coffee).
Others are not attributed this way, but can be presumed to have been inspired by cross-border contact. I say this due not just to the proximity of that part of New York to Ontario, but the fact that baked butter tart recipes appear not to have proliferated in the state until after they became well-established in Ontario.
At the same time, other references to butter tarts in New York’s press, and outside New York, cannot be so easily explained.
U.S. References to Butter Tarts That are Arguably Ambiguous
Consider a 1962 article from the (American) Niagara Falls Gazette, in which the following appears:
Mrs. Stewart makes elaborate preparations for holiday festivities and has an imposing array of Welsh desserts. Clockwise are her Teisen Lychwan or Welsh cakes; Bara Brith, (fruit bread); English Trifle; and a platter of butter tarts, lemon tarts and small fruit cakes in paper cups. Her plum pudding, topped with holly, is in the center.
The very clear photo shows Mrs. Stewart in traditional Welsh costume and her array of treats mentioned. The butter tarts look just like ours. Yet there is no reference to Canada, they are described, evidently via Mrs. Stewart, as Welsh as for the other foods. Could it be she discovered the butter tarts across the bridge, and simply assumed (correctly) they had a distant Britannic inspiration, and just called them Welsh from convenience?
It’s possible. I cannot find an example in current culinary literature of a Welsh butter tart or border tart. Interestingly, a 2011 detective book called A Killer’s Christmas in Wales written by Elizabeth Duncan, part of her Penny Brannigan series, includes a reference to “brandy butter tarts“, but Elizabeth Duncan is Canadian! Perhaps though she did notice such tarts in a Welsh bakery at one point.
In The Hamburg Sun in May 1963, a bake sale for the Unitarian Church offered “‘Molly Jones’ English butter tarts”:
Home baked goods will feature fruit breads, home baked beans and brown bread, coffee cakes, home made bread, “Molly Jones” English butter tarts and cookies.
Hamburg is just west of Buffalo, not far again from Canada. A similar example, with recipe, in 1929 in more distant Schenectady, NY is called simply English Tart, and virtually identical to the basic butter tart recipe of Ontario.
There is no reference to Canada, or details of the Molly Jones, for Hamburg’s butter tart. Butter tarts can indeed be English as we know, so could these dishes, as perhaps Mrs. Stewart’s, have entered the local baking scene directly via a U.K. influence? We think this rather likely.
In 1958, an American who married a man of Scottish background made “Scotch butter tarts”, see this interesting account in the Buffalo Courier-Express.
She states she got the small metal tins from “commercial” examples of butter tarts sold in Canada – all Ontarians reading know those tins! – but otherwise the cultural reference here is Scotland, no differently than for the other Scots dishes she made for her family.
Her recipe (partly obscured by the shield of the uploader) appears to be the Ecclefechan/Ontario type except cake crumbs are used to bulk out the filling.
In January 1950 in the Wilton Bulletin in Wilton, CT, rather remote from the Niagara Frontier, a Beata Fortune advertises “butter tarts”, Britannic-sounding shortbread, and brandy snaps: no apparent German connection.
All this to say, the butter tart of the U.K. almost certainly has had a long implantation in the U.S. for which Canada cannot be credited. Unlike Canada though, the dish never flourished there, never became marked for culinary distinction as one might say for apple pie, or the milkshake.
U.S. Butter Tarts Advertisements Circa-1900 and More Recently, in Greenfield, MA
One of the most interesting cases concerns Charles Voetsch, a German immigrant baker from Thuringen. He came to Greenfield, MA, in the north of the state, an area certainly well-insulated from Canada. This 1909 sketch of his career in the Greenfield Recorder explains he came in 1896, set up a bakery, and sold it in 1909 after 13 successful years in business.
He had numerous ads in the Greenfield Recorder that included butter tarts. They appeared between 1900 and 1908 with (in different combinations) eclairs, Charlotte Russe, cream puffs, whipped cream cakes, and frozen pudding as companion offerings. These are vaguely French or Anglo-American-type preparations, not really typical of German or Viennese baking.
The earliest ad I found, via the Fulton Historical Newspapers archive as for most of the news references herein, is from December 5, 1900:
I suspect similar Voetsch ads appeared before 1900 but the archives mentioned appear to start in 1900 for this newspaper.
Was this a Scots-style butter tart, implanted in Greenfield in a fashion similar to its (presumed) implantation in Ontario? Or was it perhaps the German fruit-laced puff pastry William Vollmer wrote about both in German and English and a successful (German-American) baker such as Voetsch can be presumed to have known about?
We cannot say, except that the item was popular enough to have appeared in numerous ads by his bakery in the same paper mentioned. Here is one more, from December 14, 1904.
Holtermann’s is a surviving family bakery in Staten Island, NY, founded by a German ancestor in the late-1800s who must have been much like Voetsch. The Holtermann website describes numerous specialties that were also advertised by Voetsch in the early 1900s, and more modern ones, but not butter tarts. Perhaps Holtermann carried them in 1900.
Let’s return to modern Greenfield, MA, though. Foster’s, a family-owned supermarket in the city founded in 1941, still sells butter tarts. See their bakery product list here. No details are given on the confection of the butter tarts. The current site includes an image of a butter tart, the pecan-type familiar to Ontarians.
The image has a legend that it was supplied to Foster’s by a canola oil manufacturer, so the image may not represent the one actually being sold, or may not represent the one sold earlier in the 1900s.
I can show you, in fact, a 1988 Foster’s supermarket ad for butter tarts – placed in the very same newspaper in which Voetsch advertised his butter tarts:
This ad supplies a possible clue that what Voetsch sold c.1900 was the fruited German puff-pastry version. One way to interpret the ad is two types of butter tart are sold, a raspberry one and pecan one. I suppose one can argue that it meant, raspberry tart, pecan tart, and butter tart, three types all different, but this seems less likely to me.
A raspberry, Ontario-style butter tart sounds atypical to say the least; I have never seen one. This description (if it is) of the Greenfield butter tart has a hint of William Vollmer, and perhaps shows what Voetsch sold under that name. A puff pastry flavoured with pecan is also still current, a quick search discloses many recipes.
Other Early-1900s U.S. Bakery Ads for Butter Tarts Outside Upstate New York
The Voetsch-type butter tart was probably similar to some butter tarts advertised in the same era in various parts of the northeast (at least). For example, the grocery store Siegel Cooper in New York, in the World in May 1906, advertised them as part of an assortment featuring a fruit sandwich, vanilla jelly, and date fingers.
Here is another example from the same retailer earlier in the same month.
The Philadelphia Inquirer on August 2, 1904 advertised butter tarts as part of an assortment that included “diamond figs, [n?]ice assorted fruits, pineapple turnovers, and cocoanut combination bars”:
An ad from the Star Bakery in Michigan on April 17, 1917 offered butter tarts along with cream puffs and angel food cake – seemingly no German context.
And so, which tart in these cases? The Scots butter tart? The German fruited one? The butterscotch tart? Maybe sometimes it was one or another. Ontario influence would seem too early for any of them except possibly the Michigan case, as the town in question, Crystal Falls, is just below Lake Superior. Perhaps the Five Roses Cookbook (1st edition, 1913) had penetrated there given commerce around the Great Lakes.
The butter tart is deservedly Ontario’s pet snack, a word that seems too derisory to describe it at its best. Its distinction comes from the few ingredients used vs. a more complex (in general) construction overseas; the purity and full flavour are best expressed in the simple way we make it. Anyway, we perfected it.
At the same time, the butter tart has had an American career. In some cases it was our’s transplanted, in others it was Scotland’s or Albion’s brought direct to the U.S. but never becoming a thing there as it did here. Yet in other cases, it was a German-type butter torte or indeed Britannic but the line of confections known as the butterscotch tart, which at bottom is a different pastry.
Canadian entrepreneurs have attempted periodically to introduce butter tarts to Americans. The actress Suzanne Sommers and her Canadian-born husband tried a few decades ago but it didn’t work.** An entrepreneur, Asher Weiss, is currently trying in New York as reported in the city’s Daily News, and we wish him well. The headline stated butter tarts have “arrive[d] in New York”. But not for the first time.
[See also our post following on the Ginger Farm Butter Tart].
Note re images: the images and quotations above are all drawn from sources identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes, and for fair comment. All feedback welcomed.
*All consideration of apple butter tarts, made that is with the product apple butter, and lemon or orange butter tarts, has been excluded as the dominance of the fresh fruit flavour seems to take these out of the basic Scots-Anglo-Canadian butter tart family. The peanut butter, or peanut butter-and-chocolate, tart likewise seems of a different order to us. Incidentally, chocolate butter tarts are quite popular in Ontario now but we think these quite wrongheaded – I’ve never had one that seems “right”. Our preference in classic butter tarts is the plain Jane type, or with currants. More is superfluous and can detract from the purity and intensity of taste.
**The investment was referred to in this L.A. Times notice of the passing of their business partner in the venture, Mr. A. J. Maxwell.