When someone predicts that “our soils will become barren” and “the dairy industry will be destroyed,” it’s best to sit up and take notice; a wrathful god wielding some sort of cattle plague is probably in the vicinity. But in 1886, the year those threats were registered with the U.S. House of Representatives, the source of deadly danger wasn’t a peeved deity. It was margarine.
According to comments entered into the congressional record—and recently unearthed for a new exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.—the country’s dairy farmers took it upon themselves to warn that the menace of margarine would rob the red-blooded American public of “life promoting vitamins...without which human infants cannot continue to live.” Oleomargarine was a cheap alternative to butter that was taking France by storm—it was invented by a chemist competing for a prize offered for a palatable butter substitute by Emperor Louis Napoleon III. Dairy farmers weren’t going to stand by and watch the nation’s toast get slathered in any old spread.
When it comes to influencing legislators, the dairy lobby has always been good at getting results. That August, Congress passed the Margarine Acts of 1886. Butter alternatives, which started out much cheaper, became more expensive, thanks to taxes and limited access to licenses for legal production.
The importance of Vitamins A and D, which are found in butter, created another reason to despise its replacement, even though margarine makers quickly added the vitamins to a “fortified” version of their product, something the left hand of the government recognized as valuable during the war years, even as the right hand kept the taxes and restrictions in place. (Vitamin A is what gives the late, lamented wondercrop Golden Rice its color—it's vital for helping to prevent blindness in children.)
Making a cheap thing artificially expensive is a great way to create the conditions for a black market. And lo and behold, by 1915 the United States government was deep into the business of locking up folks like oleomargarine bootlegger Charles Wille in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. He was joined by one John L. McMonigle, who served nearly a year for spread-related crimes, and many, many others.
It was margarine masquerading as butter that really got dairy farmers and their pet legislators hot under the collar, so that became the sticking point of the law. Legit margarine makers got around the taxes and regulations on butter-colored margarine by offering American homemakers capsules of food coloring to knead into their margarine. The result: Creepy ads like the one below.
The sad stories of these incarcerated margarine bootleggers appear alongside many other tales of the government’s troubled relationship with food in “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?,” which is scheduled to run through January 3, 2012, at the National Archives.
After you’ve waited in line with the other sweaty tourists this summer to see originals of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, you can pop upstairs and squelch the feeling of rising patriotism in your breast by checking out the graphically interesting and scientifically dubious propaganda the government has been issuing about food for decades—along with evidence that the buttermakers may command the guns after all.
Even as butter became scarce during the war years and food propaganda grew increasingly comical (Posters advised Americans to “Eat the Carp!”), the anti-margarine laws remained in place, and state and federal governments kept sending margarine makers to the Big House. Margarine taxes were finally repealed in 1950.
Despite recent moves by Congress, state legislatures, and city councils to ban trans fats (once found in margarine) and the current preference among foodies for "real" butter, margarine is enjoying the last laugh. According to ButterySpreads.org, which is a real website, “Americans eat more than twice as much soft margarine spreads as they do butter.”
Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.