The War on Margarine
By Mary Davis
As I was researching my topic for my June post, CRISCO, I looked into the fascinating history of margarine. It is older than I realized.
When making a shopping list, my mom would write down oleo. “Huh? What’s that, Mom?” “Margarine.” Why didn’t she just write margarine? I suppose it was shorter, and it was her list, and she knew what it meant. But I digress.
Back in the 1860’s—yes, margarine dates back that far—France had a butter shortage. Emperor Napoleon III offered a prize for the creation of a substitute for butter. He wanted something cheaper for his soldiers and the poor.
French scientist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès took up the challenge and experimented with animal fats. This came on the heels of his success with making bread ingredients yield 14% more. In 1869, he received a patent in France for his oleomargarine making process, which combined beef tallow and skimmed milk. Patents from several other countries followed that same year and years after. His creation was called oleomargarine: “oleo” from the Latin “oleum” (olive oil) and the Greek “margarite” (pearl-indicating luster). So that’s where my mom got oleo from.
I’m not going to get into the science of how it was made, the variations of ingredients from beef to vegetable oil, hydrogenation, and such. Just know there was a lot of science-y stuff in the making and reformulating of it. More interesting is the trouble margarine caused.
Oleomargarine, which was shortened to margarine, became popular in Europe. It didn’t take long for it to spread to the United States where dairy farmers felt their livelihood threatened. Various attempts to crush the spread of margarine ranged from heavy taxes to outright bans to strange colors and absolute lies.
Margarine producers popped up all across the country. Everyone wanted in on this new profitable market. With the invasion of margarine, the dairy industry declared war on the new competition. The battle was fought in the local courts, federal legislation, and on the streets, where margarine was deemed an unhealthy fraud, trying to pass itself off as butter.
Wild accusations claimed that it threatened family farms, the American way of life, and the moral order. Political cartoonists even went so far as to depict margarine factories putting everything from paint and arsenic to soap, rubber boots, and stray cats in the mix. Drummed up scientific reports hinted that margarine might cause cancer and insanity. Some compared it to the witches’ brew in Macbeth.
This led to the 1886 Margarine Act that imposed strict tariffs and fees on margarine producers. The first of many anti-margarine laws, but they didn’t all stick. However, the damage to the burgeoning margarine market had been done. Some states, including Michigan, Maine, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and, of course, Wisconsin, put outright bans on margarine.
New Hampshire and other states had mandates, for a while, that margarine must be tinted pink. These were called the “pink laws”. Violators selling non-pink margarine could be fined $100 or sixty days in jail. The whole idea of pink margarine was to make it unsalable, and they were right. However, the Supreme Court struck down that law in 1898, stating that margarine wasn’t naturally pink. Other “tasty” shades of margarine were red and brown.
No state fought harder against margarine than Minnesota, creating law after law to make it nearly impossible to sell it in their state—a dairy state. However, most of their laws got shot down in court as unconstitutional.
The dairy industry managed to get a law passed where margarine—which is naturally white-ish—could not be colored yellow in an attempt to fool consumers. To get around this, margarine producers packaged it in plastic bags with a tab that could be broken to release yellow dye. Then the bag would have to be kneaded for about twenty minutes to mix in the food coloring to make the margarine yellow.
Both World Wars helped increase margarine sales when butter was too expensive and scarce. The health benefits of margarine over butter went up and down. One minute it was superior to butter, and the next it was detrimental to one’s health.
Until the 1950s and 60s, some states still had laws on the books pertaining to the color of margarine. Minnesota didn’t relinquish their laws on yellow margarine until 1963 but still taxed margarine, along with North Dakota, until 1975.
I never realized there was so much angst over margarine.
Have you ever heard of pink margarine or remember mixing yellow dye into a pouch of margarine?
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