There were “oceans” of apple-butter and great loaves of snow-white bread that “took the cake” over anything that came within the range of my experience.... A slice cut from one of them and smeared thick with that delicious apple-butter, was a feast fit for gods or men.
The quote is from a 1908 book by a Mr. James Harvey Kidd, but it is located in a small ocean of research about old-fashioned apple butter curated by Steven Edholm on his blog, Skillcult.
This is not the kind of apple butter you are likely to find in a store nowadays, a sort of extra rich reduced apple sauce. It is rather an "apple marmalade," a gel that (I'm guessing) owes some of its texture to natural pectin and that can keep fresh, unrefrigerated, for years—25 of them by one account.
Steven calls this "the real old-school shelf-stable apple butter," and he is intensely curious about it as a method for preserving fruit. Based on his research, he made a small batch of apple butter and shares his recipe and his conclusions in a video at instructables.com.
The basic recipe involves cooking apples in fresh sweet cider that has been reduced by boiling to about half of its original volume. It makes a translucent dark red gel.
Steven kindly brought his research and this history to my attention in a comment on my recent review of Pound Sweet, said to be a prime apple for butter.
His blog post is titled "Historical Accounts on Very Old Fashioned, pre-20th Century, Shelf Stable Apple Butter."
Old farmers say the cost of a barrel of Apple butter is not over ten cents a gallon, and there are few neighborhoods even in the country where a good maker cannot sell his Apple butter at ten to fifteen cents a quart, realizing not far from one dollar a bushel for his poorest Apples in this shape.Vick's Monthly Magazine, 1887