Margarine Bootleggers Sent to Federal Prison

...and other stories of what happens when the government plays with your food.


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.

butter and margarine, happy together in their own food group

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.)

What's keeping Wille's mustache so neat?

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.

No mold needed!

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, 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.

NEXT: Senate Votes 73 to 27 Against Billions in Ethanol Subsidies

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  1. I can’t believe it’s not legal!

    1. Right out of the blocks.

  2. oleomargarine

    Crossword writers all over the country breathed a sigh of relief.

  3. I’m wondering about the margarine bootleggers. Did they have violent turf wars for territory? Did the street-level dealers cut the oleo with cheap pork fat? Were there junkies stealing to support their habit of getting toasted?

    1. They greased the palms of the authorities…

      1. The truly devious teamed with the authorities to satisfy butter’s new protectionist-created supply surplus by running muffin rings outside of the watchful eye of their gangland bosses.

        1. “Spread ’em”, he commanded; you’re yellow. YELLOW! As he commenced patting him down, knives and other utensils appearing as if on a silver platter, he looked him square in the eyes and declared “You’re toast, you understand that? Toast.” The grilling then commenced, and although the room was wired, the beans were spilled. Black beans. On toast.

    2. Tons of money in that margarine game. Hustlers back then stacked cheddar to the ceiling.

  4. I remember white margarine with the dye packets in Saskatchewan in the early sixties, so at least one Canadian province succumbed to its dairy lobby. I’ve never seen it anywhere else.

    1. From 1886 to 1948, margarine was completely banned in Canada. The ban on production was lifted in 1948 by ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada.

      “This legislation actually dated back to 1886, and it was claimed in the law that the real purpose was to target a product that was ‘injurious to health.’ While this, if true, would have made margarine a fair target for criminal law, the federal government admitted before the courts that this assessment was simply false.”

      1. Thank you.

        And reading that left me wondering if any other country has had a Chief Justice with so wonderful a name as Thibaudeau Rinfret.

  5. There’s some butter in the kitchen. Go get the butter.

    1. RIP Maria Schneider.

  6. Butter is way better than margarine? I’ve seen through the b-o-o-lshit.

    1. “The next time you eat a piece of buttered toast, remember that the butter is actually the more healthful component.” — David Ludwig, MD, PhD, Director, Obesity Program, Children’s Hospital Boston

      1. Yeah, healthy for his paycheck.

  7. I remember someone here posting a short story by Vonnegut(I think) about butter police in the future. Haven’t been able to find it since.

    1. F. Paul. Wilson, Lipidleggin’?

      1. Fantastic!

      2. Yup. thought the same thing.

  8. Margarine is GROSS!

  9. How long before butter is outlawed in the name of public health.

  10. Margarine is a gateway food. It leads drinking corn oil and putting mayonaise on french fries.

    Soon the addicts are chugging corn oil. They become obese and have heart disease, causing society thousands in lost taxes and medical costs.

    In addition, margarine does not contain cholesterol like butter. Cholesterol: an essential component for all animal cells.

    1. I thought cholesterol was bad. Maybe it was bad before it was good?

      1. “CT scans of Egyptian mummies show that many of them suffered from hardening of their arteries, researchers said Sunday.”…..rt-disease
        Yet… “The Egyptians ate more fruit and vegetables and less meat than we do and their meat was leaner.”
        I guess the AHA and FDA don’t read the LA Times.

        1. The problem with that example is that mummies were the remains of limited strata of the Egyptian population – the elite – and often the elite of any premodern population had more access to animal foods than lower classes, who often ate a largely vegetarian diet by necessity.

  11. If you think it’s butter, but it’s snot…

  12. I remember in the 60s Wisconsin still banned it. My uncle used to smuggle it in from Chicago.

  13. Fucking federal butter thugs.

  14. “Fucking federal butter thugs.”…Federal Dog|6.22.11 @ 2:25PM

    You are not making sense. The thugs were from India.

    From Oxford (dictionary):
    Thug a member of a religious organization of robbers and assassins in India. Devotees of the goddess Kali , the Thugs waylaid and strangled their victims, usually travellers, in a ritually prescribed manner. They were suppressed by the British in the 1830s. The name is recorded from the early 19th century and comes from Hindi hag ‘swindler, thief’, based on Sanskrit sthagati ‘he covers or conceals’.

  15. “Fucking federal butter thugs.”…Federal Dog|6.22.11 @ 2:25PM

    I am thoroughly confused. I can’t figure out nouns, verbs and adjectives. Is there anyway you could provide a link to a picture of one of these type of people?

  16. And thus I command, cast out the blasphemous false butter, you are compelled to thus always worship the one true spread, butter thine is the golden glory. Amen.

  17. The federal courthouse in Milwaukee, WI (the Dairy State) still has an old listing of departments in a display as you exit from the elevator on the first floor. One of the listed departments is “Oleomargarine Department” or something substantially similar to that. That must have been important to some dairy farmer constituents back in the day.

    Kind of comforting to know that that it is American tradition for commercial interests to use the government’s coercive power to harass competitors to preserve the status quo. Brings a tear to my eye.

  18. I’m a butter guy, wont touch margarine…


    I may not agree with what he eats, but I will defend to the death his right to eat it!

    1. Agreed.
      Read that margarine ad – at the bottom it says it’s “packed with food energy”. I love old ads.

  19. The farmers are the first ones to demand that everyone else’s markets be opened to them, but their own markets be protected with barbed wire and gun towers. For them a “level playing field” means they own the ball, the bat, the stadium, the lights and both teams, Oh, and subsidies. Lots and lots of subsidies, tax breaks and just plain gimmes.

  20. I have no idea of that

  21. “Fucking federal butter thugs.”

    We need to get the Guv’nor’ (Governor of the thugs)

    The British used a system of capturing the thugs and putting them in jail. The mail thugs were kept in different jails than the female thugs so they could not make little baby thugs. The fucking thugs were toast. I haven’t found that particular info on the internet, but I’m doing more research.
    The leader of a gang was called the ‘jemadar’: this is an ordinary Indian word and is now used as the rank of an Army officer (Lieutenant), who would command a similar number of men to a Thuggee gang-leader. An English equivalent term might be ‘the Boss’ or ‘the Guv’nor’ (Governor).

    What does any of this have to do with the US? The thugs were exterminated by the British.

  22. Typo above!

    male thugs (not mail thugs)

  23. “our soils will become barren” and “the dairy industry will be destroyed,”
    thank you for your sharing…

  24. Restrictions on margarine continued at the state level for a long time. Growing up in Wisconsin in the 50s, I remember my father telling me about bootlegging margarine from Illinois. Every time neighbors or relatives drove to Illinois, they would be asked to bring back cases of the stuff.

  25. I myself prefer butter, and I think that most of the population does, the problem is in the price! butter is more than double the price of margarine. I believe that margarine should be outlawed, it’s actually quite disgusting…..

  26. I believe that margarine should be outlawed,

    Uh…yeah, um….we don’t talk that way around here.

  27. without which human infants cannot continue to live.” Oleom

  28. wont touch margarine
    Respiratory System Diseases

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