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.
ADVENT OF OLEOMARGARINE AND ACTIONS TO STYMIE ITS PRODUCTION AND DISTRIBUTION:
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.
VERMONT LEGISLATURE’S LAW ON IMITATION BUTTER AND CHEESE-
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).
VERMONT CONGRESSMAN WALLACE GROUT LEADS EFFORT TO TIGHTEN LAWS AGAINST OLEOMARGARINE:
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.
EFFORT LONG TERM DID NOT STOP THE MANUFACTURE AND SALE OF MARGARINE:
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 (FoodBanter.com). 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.
REFERENCES AND SOURCES FOR THIS BLOG POSTING:
- “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, Shoreacres.wordpress.com
- 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 ButterySpread.com
- “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.
NEXT BLOG POSTING:
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