Having grown up on the East Coast, I've only ever known American-made butter to come in long, narrow sticks. Turns out I was living in a butter bubble; it wasn't until I heard a story one evening on NPR's Marketplace about the difference between West Coast and East Coast butter that I realized there was a difference to be known at all.
Elgins vs. Western Stubbies
There are quite a few factors that have contributed to what turns out to be a very rich history of the size and packaging of butter in America, from the birth of the butter industry to the availability of milk. But the primary factor that both literally and figuratively shaped the size of butter is the machinery used to manufacture it.
The butter industry has historically been stronger on the East Coast, thanks to an abundance of milk. After the necessary amounts went to produce whole, reduced-fat, and fat-free milk, the excess was made into dairy byproducts. Butter was produced and shaped into what's known as Elgin-style sticks, named for the company that manufactured the machinery used to process and pack the butter. Once the West Coast finally caught up with dairy production, the Elgin-style machines were no longer available. The replacement machines packaged butter into short, fat sticks that are now known as Western stubbies.
Today, companies like Land O' Lakes continue to produce butter of both sizes to satisfy the stick preferences of the respective coasts. Not much has been reported on what size stick is more prevalent in the Midwest. My anecdotal evidence, gathered rather unscientifically during my three years in Iowa, suggests that you can find both.
What does your butter look like? Do you buy Western stubbies? East Coast Elgins? Fat blocks of European-Style butter? As far as I'm concerned, all three make a damn fine slice of toast.