Don Stratton: The great margarine war

If you are like me and think that government interference in our lives is a little bit too much, then the next time you go to buy a container of margarine at the grocery, just think about this — 120 years ago, you could buy cocaine in drug stores, saloons and by mail order, but in some U.S. states and in Canada you could not buy margarine at all. Additionally, even if a state didn’t consider it to be contraband, margarine could not be dyed yellow to make it look like butter. The period is known as the great margarine war.

Margarine has a long history, dating back to the mid-1800s when Napoleon III of France, looking for a cheap butter substitute for his troops, offered a prize for anyone who could invent one. Chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries developed a process for churning beef tallow and milk to form a product which he called “oleomargarine.” My grandmother and others of her generation never used the word “margarine,” instead always calling it “oleo.”

In the 1870s, a Dutch company improved on the method and began marketing margarine internationally. They realized that if it were to be a butter substitute, the substance would have to change from its natural white color to the — also sometimes artificially augmented — yellow color of butter.

The butter industry was a big business, and the dairy world did not take this sitting down. They figured that even a product containing milk was too much competition for the dairy farmers, so they lobbied for laws to control the sale of this dreaded competing product. They were particularly irked at its yellow color and lobbied for a ban on the dyes which made it look like butter instead of its natural state, which looked exactly like lard.

Their lobbying succeeded, and in 1886, Canada passed a law, in effect until 1948, that totally banned the sale of margarine, regardless of color, in the whole country. The province of Quebec had such a strong dairy lobby that the sale of colored margarine was banned until 2008.

In the United States, around 30 U.S. states had by 1900 declared that any artificially colored butter substitutes were contraband, and Congress had placed a nationwide tax on margarine. Several states permitted its sale, but some required that it be dyed pink. So, in most states, you bought a brick of margarine with the unappealing look of a pound of lard.

Interestingly, in 1923, Congress meddled again in a manner that unwittingly helped the margarine industry. In their efforts to control butter substitutes, they passed a law making it illegal to add anything to butter, which prevented adding even anything to make it more spreadable. This helped the margarine industry, since it had always been easier to spread than butter.

Eventually, someone came up with a powdered dye that would enable the purchaser to color the margarine the color of butter. The brick would be placed in a mixing bowl, the dye packet dumped in, and then thoroughly mixed until the entire contents of the bowl turned yellow. This was a lot of work, and many housewives, including my grandmother, frequently would not take the time. Consequently, we frequently spread what looked like lard onto our bread. While it really didn’t taste any different, the unappealing appearance could easily make one imagine that it did.

By the late 1940s, someone came up with an easier way. The margarine was sold in a plastic bag with color beads inside at the surface. You would break the bead, and then proceed to knead the bag until the color was distributed evenly.

By around 1950, the regulations began to relax, and the tax was repealed. By 1960, you could buy yellow margarine in most states, even in quarter-pound sticks like butter. That is, all except the dairy stronghold of Wisconsin, where people were still smuggling it in from Iowa until late 1967.

There were no food safety issues involved, just pure politics. The great margarine war is just a reminder that government meddling in our lives, frequently fueled by hefty cash contributions from one industry or another, has been a fact of life for at least 140 years.

Don Stratton is a retired inspector for the Lima Police Department. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.