Friday, April 22, 2011


In the last posting to this blog, butter was established to be a key specialized agricultural product in the State of Vermont during the latter part of the 1880’s, with St. Albans being the “butter Capital of the World.”  It is not surprising then, that Vermont as well as other States reacted so quickly to counter the impact of a new competitive product, oleomargarine.


Some of us may remember our mothers talking about the color squeeze mixes that had to be added to the uncolored margarine at home.  It was intended as a way for oleo producers to get around the law that prevented them from making oleomargarine look like butter.  Dairy organizations pushed this law in order to ensure that the consumer would be aware that they were buying an artificial and inferior product to butter. The history of efforts to block the production and distribution of oleomargarine go much deeper than this one attempt, however.  One of those efforts was led by one of our own: Vt. Congressman William Wallace Grout, U.S. Congressman from 1885-1901.


According to documents, oleomargarine has an interesting history, Napoleon III offered a prize for the formulation of synthetic edible fats as Europe faced a shortage of these products.  Napoleon needed a source of artificial butter for both for the populace and for his army.  The prize for this product was awarded in 1869 to French Scientist Hippolyte MegeMories.  The rest is history, as a U.S. patent for production of oleomargarine was awarded in 1873, and by 1886 thirty-seven plants were operating in the United States with many of these in New York State.  How much this product might affect butter trade was unknown, but concern was real.  “At the turn of the Century, Mark Twain overheard a conversation between two businessmen aboard the Cincinnati riverboat and recorded it in Life on the Mississippi.  “”Why, we are turning out oleomargarine now, by thousands of tons.  And we can sell it so dirt-cheap that the whole country has got to take it—can’t get around it, you see.  Butter don’t stand any show—there ain’t any chance for competition.””(Butter Through the Ages).

The late 1800’s was the height of butter production in Vermont, and a time of growing butter production in other states as well.  Thus the reaction by State legislatures with strong push from dairy interests was quick.  It is reported that organized dairy interests ran articles in publications to incite the public.  One article called margarine “the slag of the butcher shop…a compound of diseased hogs and dead dogs.” (See Harvard law student paper).

  • In 1877, New York and Maryland passed the first labeling laws and other states soon followed.  Under these laws, the product had to be marked, stamped, and branded as such, under penalty of $100 or imprisonment for thirty-days. (See Foundation for Economic Education).
  • In 1882 dairy and butter interests formed a National Association, the National Association for Prevention of Adulteration of Butter.
  • During the period 1884-1885 state after state banned margarine, both it’s manufacture and distribution.  This act was challenged under the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and the Court found in 1894 that the States could prohibit colored margarine sales, but not uncolored.
  • With continued pressure from the U.S. dairy industry, Congress passed the Federal Margarine Act in 1886, which levied a 2-cent tax on the product and annual registration fees for producers of the product.

Chapter 183 of Vermont State Laws, Sections 4334 to Section 4342:
In simplest terms, it was unlawful to make butter or cheese out of any product except milk or cream, or to sell any product that was not real or made exclusively from milk and cream except a product that was colored pink (way to show difference from real product).  The law even went further and made it unlawful for any establishment to sell or market any artificial product (unless pink color).  Note the pink color was an attempt to make the consumer aware that it was not a real product.  The U.S. Supreme Court struck down this forced pink coloration that five states like Vermont had imposed saying that “forced adulteration could not be imposed”, but let stand State laws that prohibited margarine producer coloration.

It should be noted that some dairy industry leaders during this time felt that poor quality butter was what brought oleomargarine to the market.  For example, the then former President of the Wisconsin Dairy Association commented in 1880 “oleomargarine is giving better satisfaction than most dairy butter is now made.”  One speaker from Boston at the annual meeting of the Vermont Dairymen’s Association in 1883 stated, “Poor butter is what brought oleomargarine into the market.  If we make good butter, we need not be a bit afraid of oleomargarine.” (State Board of Agriculture Report, 1883-1884). 


Congressman Grout had a history of legislative leadership in Vermont where he had been a member of the State legislature (House and Senate).  As Vermont was a predominate dairy state, and was called the butter capital of the world, it was not surprising that he introduced a major piece of legislation that amended the 1886 Margarine Act.  The 1902 Grout Bill imposed a tax of 10 cents per pound on all colored margarine, and ¼ cents per pound on uncolored margarine. The debate was highly charged:  those arguing for margarine argued that it served the needs of the economically needy; Congressman Grout, supported by a well-organized dairy and butter lobby, argued that
            1) margarine was a deceptive work of man, a counterfeit item,
            2) the product would have a ruinous effect as it was dishonest competition on the greatest agricultural industry in the United States, and
            3) the purpose was not to raise revenue for the country, but to regulate the sale of  an article of commerce.

The Grout law passed, but there was a loophole….uncolored margarine was only taxed at ¼ cents per pound, and it was a loophole that the margarine industry responded to, hence the colored squeeze packets that consumers in the home could use, like many of our mothers did, to make the margarine look more like butter.  By 1902, 32 states and 80% of the U.S. population lived under margarine color bans.


So, what happened with all this effort to stymie the production and distribution of margarine?  Consumers were the final judges, and so it was with margarine consumption, which increased during the depression and during the war periods. This was mainly because margarine was the less expensive product when compared to butter.   For example, in 1930 the per capita consumption of margarine was 2.6 lbs. versus 17.6 lbs. of butter, and today the consumption of margarine and oil spreads is 8.3 lbs per capita versus butter at 4.2 lbs (  Today there are new methods of margarine production using vegetable and other plant oils that are superior to the oleomargarines of our parents and grandparents.   Margarine consumption overtook butter in 1957.  In 1950 Congress repealed the tax on margarine.  A new film called “Margarine Wars” depicts this period as a comedy.  What was a serious matter to the early butter producers in Vermont and in other states is depicted in this film.  It shows with humor the story of the son of a Swedish dairy farmer in Wisconsin being duped into smuggling margarine into his state.

While attempts were made to prohibit or reduce margarine production and distribution through various means to include color, fines, and taxation, these efforts eventually could not overcome consumer interest in these lower cost products.  Also when the imitation products began to be manufactured by oils from corn, soy and other vegetable products it was harder for the dairy industry to fight.  They were now pitted against other agricultural interests, not just the livestock fats and the Chicago slaughterhouses.  This is a lesson that is being learned even today with the production of many artificial consumer products.   Through the years we have learned that consumer demand as well as reasonable product price drives production.


  • “The War on Margarine” by Adam Young, in Foundation for Economic Education, June 2002, Vol. 52, Issue 6.
  • Butter through the Ages, History of the French Pearl (.com site)
  • Margarine, Moonshine and Light, The Task at Hand,
  • The “Oleo Wars” Wisconsin’s Fight over the Demon Spread, by Gerry Strey in Wisconsin Magazine of History, Autumn 2001 issue.
  • “Bogus Butter: An Analysis of the 1886 Congressional Debates on Oleomargarine Legislation”: A Thesis Presented by Chris Burns to the Faculty of the Graduate College of the University of Vermont, May 2009.
  • Eighth Vermont Agricultural Report, State Board of Agriculture, 1883-1884.
  • Tenth Vermont Agricultural Report, State Board of Agriculture, 1887-1888.
  • “If It’s Yellow, It Must be Butter”: Margarine Regulation in North America Since 1886, in The Journal of Economic History, 1999, Vol. 59, Issue 2.
  • Library of Congress (Open Library): Oleomargarine, Remarks of Congressman William W. Grout of Vermont in the U.S. House of Representatives, Tuesday May 25, 1886.
  • History of Margarine in
  • “The Palette of Our Palates: A Brief History of Food Coloring and its Regulation”, by Adam Burrows, Harvard Law School Class of 2006, May 2006.

The Growth of the Fluid Mild Market and Its Challenges

Trivia Question:  From what town in Vermont did the first fluid milk train to Boston leave?

Edition 7, April 22, 2011

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


                             Butter Production in Vermont

                                                1850    12 million pounds
                                                1851    15.9 million pounds
                                                1886    25 million pounds
                                                1899    35 million pounds
                                                1917    11 million pounds
                                                1927      4 million pounds

According to records, after the decline of the Merino Sheep industry, the movement to commercial butter production did not happen overnight, (see Annual Reports of State Board of Agriculture).  Butter and cheese had always been made on the farm.  This was a skill passed down from one generation to the next.  There was no special breed of cow used for milk…it was just one that was used for many tasks on the farm.   Butter and cheese were consumed in the house, and what was left over was often bartered for other products that were needed by the family but could not be produced on the farm. “ The herds were milked in the open yard; the curds were worked in tubs and log presses.  Everything was done by guess and there was no order, no system, and with no science.” In fact, dairy was incidental to other things grown on the farm until about 1840 when the tide began to turn.  As the urban areas and cities grew, merchants reached out for these products, the majority of which were still produced on the farm before the 1880’s.  How important the women were to this process is cited in the First Annual Report of the State Board of Agriculture, “…there are several essential elements necessary to the making of good butter...good cows, good feed, good salt, a good churn, and a good women; and it is said by some that the possession of the last would insure the first four.”  Some expressed the opinion that the dairymen should be adept at making butter too so that they could manufacture it independent of female help.  Butter making, however, was considered to be a fine art that was passed down from generation to generation.  As stated by one individual, “butter making is a fine art.  There are probably more good poets, painters, and sculptors in the world than there are first-class butter makers.”(Fourth Report State Board of Agriculture, 1877).

As the demand for butter increased, farmers responded, but not as quickly as some thought they should and not with the best cattle.  Some claimed, “if one-half as much thought was given to the dairy business as was given to sheep raising…. the dairy production would be doubled.”  Others contended that at least one fourth of the cows used in making milk were worthless. “Everyone went into business hap-hazard.  Everything in the shape of a cow was brought into dairy…no thought or care was given to the production of milk with the animal.” (Eleventh Vt. Agricultural Report, State Board of Agriculture, 1889-90.)  Attempts were made to increase the quality of butter on the farm with education.  For example, in 1870 the Vermont Dairymen’s Association was formed, the first such association in the United States.  Gradually attempts were made to bring better cattle genetics into milk production on the farm.  An example of this is the work of Fredrick Billings in his efforts to import cattle from the Isle of Jersey in 1871. He realized there was more to the making of butter than just milking the family cow.  The quality of the milk was important and so by 1890, the Billings Farm, using the imported breed, was producing 5,000 pounds of butter annually. 

As demand grew, creameries sprang up in many towns and communities around the State.   Historical Societies’ and other documents give information on many of these creameries.  For example, Stowe, Vermont had one, as did Colchester, Brattleboro, Cabot, and many other communities.  By  1900 there were 186 creameries and 66 cheese factories in the State of Vermont, and twenty-four of these creameries were located in Chittenden County.  These creameries were able to establish higher milk quality standards than previously existed.  For example when the creamery in Brattleboro was built in about 1887 (village people took most of the stock), they raised the price of butter by 12 to 14 cents per pound.  They could do this by increasing the quality of their butter.  One way this was done was by demanding total cleanliness on the farm.  To insure this the farms were inspected continually.  After the cheese and butter were made the whey was returned to the farmer to feed the pigs and other livestock.  This way nothing was wasted.

Industries Grow to Support Butter Shipping: 
Butter was shipped in tubs and thus the manufacture of these became an industry in itself in Vermont.  Stowe had such an industry, run by water, near its creamery.  One of Vermont’s major butter tub factories was located in Montgomery, Vermont.  There were four factories there that employed 100 men and used 4 million board feet of spruce lumber each year.  It is said that these factories, under one ownership, made 295,000 tubs each year in three sizes; 20, 30, and 50 pounds as well as a butter box for the family of 5-10 pounds each.  Farmers and creameries took great pride in the packing of butter for shipment.  Many had their own emblem that distinguished their butter from the butter of other farms. 

St. Albans Becomes the Butter Capital of the World in the 1880’s: 
St. Albans was a natural location for producing butter since it was located near many of the large farms and is situated along Lake Champlain’s shore where the butter could be shipped by water.  Before the railroads, butter shipments from the bay were said to take place, but it was not until the advent of the railroads that significant butter commerce began.  In 1854 the Vermont Central Railroad started running a butter train with ice from St. Albans once each week to Boston.  It is said that “Tuesday was market day and the streets were thronged with as many as 300 teams around the cold storage building which was located on the main line of the railroad with side tracks to the refrigerated doors of the building.”  Buyers from as far away as New York and Boston were provided a special room in the building to conduct their business.  St. Albans became a very convenient location for shipping since products could reach leading cities in just a few hours by train.  By 1880, one-fourth of the butter in the State was from Franklin County.

Vermonter’s Take Pride in Their Butter: 
Vermont butter became known for its quality.  For example, the Green Mountain Stock Farm at West Randolph won the Gold Medal for the best butter in the world.  Nevertheless, there still remained concern about quality standards with some claiming that although Vermont made some of the best butter, it made some of the worst as well.  Only by producing the best and with the best milk, many contended, would Vermont be able to sustain its place, and thus obtain a higher price for its farmers.  Milk quality continued to be an issue, and in 1906 the State Board of Health began testing milk samples. Of the 140 samples collected, only 39% met sanitary standards.  These results brought about significant efforts to increase these standards on the farm.

Importance of Technology: 
Two major advancements helped to move butter production forward.  One was the Babcock Test for cream.  This test made it possible for farmers to be paid according to a real measure of cream shipped to the creamery.  The other innovation was the cream separator, made in Sweden. These are models that could be used either on the farm or at the creamery.  By 1890 there were approximately sixty-five mechanical separators being used at the creamery in St. Albans. One of the Vermont manufacturers of these separators was located in Bellows Falls, Vermont.

Interesting Facts Related to Butter Production:
1.     In 1850, 19 tons of butter was made in farmhouses in Duxbury.
2.     In 1888, the Mt. Mansfield Creamery was the first established in Lamoille County.
3.     The Cabot Creamery was established in 1893, and later purchased by 94 farmers at a cost of $5.00 per cow and a cord of wood for the boiler.
4.     Beginning in 1806, Boson traders conducted extensive commerce in enormous blocks of Artic ice, and towed it to destinations all over the Atlantic world.

Blogger’s Comments: 
Butter became an important specialized industry for Vermont in the latter part of the 1800’s.  Spurred on by the needs of the growing cities and by new means of transportation, commerce in butter trade increased.  Support industries sprang up to support this trade.  In next week’s blog I will discuss the reasons for the decline of this specialized industry.

Note:  While this posting discusses the rise of dairy specialization in butter making in the mid to late 1800’s, another agricultural specialization was also taking place after the Civil War when commercial apple orchards were established in Northern Vermont. These orchards were planted near the lake in order to take advantage of the climate and the soil.  By the late 1800’s, Vermont was considered one of the most important apple producing regions in the U.S., and its products were shipped throughout the U.S., as well as to South America, Europe, and Canada. (see The History of the Vermont Apple Industry, from The Season of Apples by the Vermont Department of Agriculture).

Background and References for this blog posting:

·      First Annual Report of the State Board of Agriculture, 1872
·      Third Biennial Report of the State Board of Agriculture, 1875-76
·      Eleventh Report of the State Board of Agriculture, 1889-90
·      Fifteenth Vermont Agricultural Report, State Board of Agriculture, 1895
·      Twentieth Report of the State Board of Agriculture, 1900
·      Twenty-six Annual Report, State Board of Agriculture, 1906
·      Agriculture of Vermont, Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture, 1915
·      Mother Earth News, Guernsey Cattle: Heritage Livestock Breeds, Janet Vorwald Dohner, June 2010
·      A Centennial History of St. Albans Vermont
·      Vermont Barn Census, Chittenden County Student Research Project, 2010.  A Brief Agricultural History of Colchester, Vermont by Elizabeth Warburton
·      “Butter through the Ages”
·      Vermont Historical Society, War and Industry, 1860-1910, “Butter is King.”
·      Cabot of Vermont, The History of the World’s Best Cheddar.
·      Town of Stowe History
·      Town of Warren History
·      Town of Milton History, Milton in the Beginning
·      Billings Farm and Museum, History of the Farm
·      Duxbury, Vermont History, Then and Now by Alice DeLong, 1991
·      Rural Vermont, A Program for the Future, The Vermont Commission on Country Life, Burlington 1931

New Trivia question:  What product competed with butter and what action was taken to try to prevent the trade of this product?

Edition 6, April 13, 2010