By Odale Cress
It all began with Emperor Louis Napoleon III’s search for a less expensive alternative to butter to provide his increasingly expensive military. The emperor offered a prize to whoever could come up with a viable substitute for butter.
In 1869, French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès answered the challenge with a mix of beef tallow and milk, and claimed the prize, according to a 2014 article by Rebecca Rupp in National Geographic and a 2002 Foundation for Economic Education story by Adam Young. The Emperor optimistically named the pale white goop “oleomargarine” (loosely translated as “pearlescent beef fat”) and enthusiastically heralded it as a boon to both his military forces and his poorer subjects. However, due to its color and consistency, the imitation butter was not as readily embraced by the public as Napoleon III had hoped. The concoction was subsequently dyed yellow, and sales saw a slight, if not wholehearted, uptick in sales.
Mège-Mouriès was awarded a French patent for his butter substitute in 1869, and a U.S. patent in 1873. In spite of the initial tepid reception, the forward-thinking U.S. Dairy Company bought his U.S. patent per Young. In 1874, they began to manufacture and distribute the imitation butter across the United States, thus launching a war between butter and margarine that would last well into the next century.
At that time, Vermont was world-renowned for the high quality of its dairy products. According to a 2013 story in The Bridge by Roger Albee, the former Vermont secretary of agriculture, St. Albans boasted the world’s largest creamery, and a gold medal was awarded to a creamery in Vermont for producing the world’s best butter.
The introduction of margarine to the U.S. market hit the nation’s dairy industry, including the prestigious Vermont industry, hard. Dairy associations in Vermont and other states retaliated with a volley of state and national laws targeting the margarine industry. Laws were quickly enacted that required butter substitute to be sold in its original, pre-dyed, off-white color. The margarine manufacturers responded to this attack by providing a capsule of yellow dye along with the margarine, which consumers could blend into the margarine themselves. Interestingly, some butter produced from corn-fed cows continues to be tinted a deeper yellow to make it more closely resemble the appealing color of butter that comes from grass-fed cows.
In 1880, laws in Vermont, New Hampshire and South Dakota dictated that butter substitutes within their respective states be dyed pink. In 1886, the Margarine Act imposed high licensing fees upon margarine producers and added a tax on their product. Ohio, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin banned margarine entirely, according to Rupp. By 1902, 32 states had color restrictions placed on butter substitutes, and some states even pushed to have the non-butter spread dyed red, brown or black. In Wisconsin, the use of yellow margarine was a crime that could land a person in jail.
But margarine had its proponents as well as its detractors. Eleanor Roosevelt promoted it on public television, saying she enjoyed it on her toast daily. Consumers who were looking to save money began to acquire a taste for it. Rupp wrote that margarine may have gotten an unexpected boost from a taste test held in Wisconsin in 1955, when a very outspoken opponent of margarine, Gordon Roselip, selected, while blind-folded, the margarine spread over the butter, as the better-tasting topping for his toast.
When he was told that it was the margarine he’d chosen, over butter, he was adamant in insisting the sample to be butter. If anyone knew butter, it was he, he maintained. As it turned out, his wife had been illegally slipping margarine onto his morning toast for years, telling him it was butter, because she was concerned for the health of his heart.
This may have given the gentleman and his butter a proverbial black eye, but it may also have further stiffened Wisconsin’s anti-margarine resolve: it wasn’t until 1967 that Wisconsin finally lifted its ban on yellow-colored margarine; it was the last state to do so, and this move marked the end of decades of legal battles between butter and margarine.