Margarine, Moonshine and Light

Butter was for Sundays, for hot yeast rolls filling the house with their loamy fragrance and for Sunday mashed potatoes.  Sometimes butter was for cinnamon toast, crusty with sugar and heavy with the scent of spice. Now and then, butter was for oyster stew or for light, crumbling cookies that vanished in a day. But for weekday toast and sandwiches, for slices of bread on the supper table and waffles adrift in syrupy seas, we made do with margarine.

We would have preferred living an all-butter life, but cost was a factor and we had no cows.  The churn had been idle for years, and the butter paddle that hangs in my kitchen already had become a curiosity.  Margarine was less expensive and more convenient, even though it came in a bag rather than a block, was white rather than yellow and like butter required some effort to be made ready for the table.

I loved making that effort. I sat on a tiny, three-legged stool at my child’s table, kneading the margarine with soothing, familiar motions: scoot the colored “yolk” into one corner, trap it against the plastic, press it down with the flat of a thumb to avoid making holes in the bag, break the yolk.  Begin to knead as though coaxing bread alive beneath my hands: roll, turn, press the ribbons of color through the slick, white fat.

Turn, and knead, turn, and knead. Roll the bag itself like a rolling pin, make a fist, push again against the heavy plastic until the color becomes smooth and even, no longer striated with ribbons of orange like the rich, heavy yolk of yard chickens’ eggs but lovely and light – the color of butter.

At the time, I had no idea my task was rooted in the work of French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouries (1817-1880), a man I like to imagine uttering the phrase “Je ne peux pas croire que ce n’est pas le beurre” – that is, “I can’t believe it’s not butter”.  Only years after Michel Eugène Chevreul’s discovery (1813) of a substance he named “margaric acid”, Mège-Mouries won Napoleon III’s competition for the right to create a butter substitute. Working at the Imperial farm Faisanderie in Vincennes, he produced his “oleomargarine” by extracting oil from beef fat, then combining it with milk to produce a butter-like spread. Mège-Mouriès received a French patent for his process in 1869, a U.S. patent in 1873, and the satisfaction of seeing American margarine production initiated by the United States Dairy Company in Manhattan sometime between 1874 and 1876.

Predictably, the dairy industry as a whole wasn’t pleased by the introduction of the new product.  Their dissatisfaction transformed itself into the so-called “butter wars”  – impassioned national and international struggles marked by propaganda, protectionism and populist rhetoric.  When New York and Maryland enacted labeling laws in 1877, other states followed suit.  The language of the labeling law passed in Missouri, cited here in Missouri vs. Bockstruck, is typical.

“Be it enacted by the general assembly of the State of Missouri, as follows…
Sec.3. Every person who lawfully manufactures any substance designed to be used as a substitute for butter shall mark, by branding, stamping or stenciling upon the top and side of each tub, firkin, box or other package in which such article shall be kept, and in which it shall be removed from the place where it is produced, in a clean and durable manner, in the English language, the words, “Substitute for Butter”, in printed letters, in plain Roman type, each of which shall not be less than one inch in length and one-half inch in width.”

The regulations were clear, but enforcement was lax. After lobbying for state inspectors from within the industry, the dairymen formed the National Association for the Prevention of Adulteration of Butter (1882).  The Association’s work was effective in two ways. It helped guarantee the purity of butter and also allowed dairymen to claim that, with no Association for the Prevention of Adulteration of Substitute Butter, it was impossible to guarantee the purity of margarine.

After months of breathless reporting in the vein of Harper’s Weekly’s assertion that “affrighted epicures are being informed they are eating their old candle-ends and tallow-dip remnants in the guise of butter”, a group of dairy farmers successfully petitioned the 1884 New York State Assembly to ban margarine in order to protect an “endangered public”. The resulting law read,

“No person shall manufacture, out of any oleaginous substance or substances or any compound of the same other than that produced from unadulterated milk or of cream . . . any article designed to take the place of butter . . . or shall sell or offer for sale the same as an article of food.”

State after state followed New York’s lead. Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio banned both the manufacture and distribution of “artificial butter” during 1884 and 1885. When the 1886 Oleomargarine Act imposed a tax of two cents per pound on the product and annual licensing fees of $600 on manufacturers, $480 on wholesalers and $48 on retailers, margarine sales plummeted.

Eventually, most states abolished anti-margarine legislation under pressure from the courts. When Massachusetts chose to pursue its case to the Supreme Court, it led to the 1894 ruling that states could prohibit importation of artificially-colored margarine but not uncolored margarine.

Remarkably, a loophole had been left.  No law restricted the coloring of margarine at home, so manufacturers began to provide yellow coloring packets with their product – the “yolks”. Having regained the ability to make margarine look like butter, consumers became more willing to use margarine  – although even my mother wondered aloud, “Why not make it yellow at the factory?”

While my mother questioned and I happily kneaded away at my faux-butter-in-a-bag, a friend and her family were engaging in petty criminality. They lived in Minnesota, where colored margarine was illegal and all margarine was highly taxed. Frustrated Minnesotans made regular forays across the border into Iowa, their cars filled with aluminum coolers and dry ice. To the casual observer, it looked like a fishing trip, but when our northern neighbors stopped at grocery stores in Estherville, Swea City or Lakota, they revealed themselves to be something quite different. They were “butter-busters”, margarine-runners of the first order, veritable Smokey-and-the-Bandits of imitation butter.

There was no need to hide their intent. Filling cart after cart with heaps and piles of margarine from the dairy cases, they just grinned at checkout clerks who asked, “So. How’re things up north?”  They traveled from store to store and town to town until the coolers were full. Then they headed back across the border to Minnesota and home, where they transferred the contraband into refrigerators and chest freezers and smiled with satisfaction.

By all accounts, margarine-running was widespread. Minnesotans came to Iowa, but so did folks from Missouri. Once colored margarine became legal in Minnesota, people from Wisconsin headed west, seeking to circumvent their own state’s restrictions. The practice of crossing borders to obtain margarine was so common that The Invisibility Affair, one of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series written by Buck Coulson and Gene DeWeese under Thomas Stratton’s name, was set in Wisconsin and portrayed Napoleon and Illya in a car trunk filled with colored margarine being smuggled from Illinois to Wisconsin.

Margarine was the product, but the behavior was purely Prohibition era. While I suspect the majority of margarine-runners were fine, upstanding citizens who mowed their grass, helped their neighbors, paid their bills and coached their kids, they were equally capable of plotting, conniving, hoarding and conspiring, all on behalf of their beloved margarine. Like taxes and regulations applied to alcohol, tobacco and playing cards, the regulation of oleomargarine was meant to control what people consumed. To some degree it was successful, but the story of the margarine laws also is the story of how remarkable creativity can emerge when people are determined not to allow government or business interests to dictate the details of their daily life.

Today, the margarine wars are over – save for Missouri, which still carries an 1895 law banning colored margarine on its books. In 2008, State Representative Sara Lampe began working toward repeal of certain provisions within the law. HR1310, which she introduced last year, failed to pass for a variety of reasons and will be reintroduced during the 2011 session. As an Assistant to Representative Lampe told me, “It may pass, or it may not. It’s more of a hot button issue than we expected.”

Meanwhile, there are stirrings of dissatisfaction elsewhere, signs that the Spirit of I’ll-Make-My-Own-Choices-Thank-You-Very-Much still is abroad in the land.  I first noticed it when my mother, who has her own ideas about how her environment should be arranged, asked me to stop by the store and pick up some light bulbs for her. I tried the grocery store first. There were few incandescent bulbs in stock and none that I needed. I made a stop at a local hardware store and a Walgreens on the way home. Neither had the bulbs, although they did have row after row of CFLs.

Finally, I made a swing past a local box store, and found a good supply of incandescent bulbs. When I checked out, I mentioned to the clerk I’d had trouble finding them. Laughing, she said, “The way people are buying them, it’s going to get interesting.”

It’s already interesting.  According to Reuters, for example, a German entrepreneur named Siegfried Rotthaeuser and his brother-in-law are evading the European Union ban on incandescent bulbs of more than 60 watts by importing and distributing 75 and 100 watt light bulbs from China as “small heating devices”. They call them “Heatballs”.

Rotthaeuser realized that, since the incandescents produce far more heat than light, they could be sold legally as heaters without violating legislative provisions.  Even Rotthaeuser might have been surprised when the first 4,000 “heatballs” sold out in three days, but reports are that he intends to expand his business. Clearly, you can’t keep a good entrepreneur down.

Just as clearly, people here are beginning to pay attention. At my local grocery store’s “cafe”, I overheard an earnest conversation: “Look. I’m 70, ok? I have two lamps that require three-way bulbs, four that take hundred watters, and that Tiffany that takes two seventy-fives.  If I live to be 90 and change bulbs twice a year…”

Laughing, I let my imagination wander. Will people leave lightbulbs to family members in their wills, labeling the boxes “Christmas Lights”? Will strange, slightly disreputable men in beige trenchcoats hang about in hardware store alleyways, attracting attention with a whispered, “Pssst! Lady! Wanna buy some hundred watts?”  Will desperate readers and needlework artists frequent seedy neighborhoods, tapping on closed doors with tiny windows and choking out the password, “Edison sent me”? Will there be underground distribution centers? A black market? Lightbulb-runners? Hoarding? Legislation? Protests?

It’s hard to say. But whatever happens, I’m ready with a word I’m more than willing to contribute to the discussion, a nice, polite word for all of the hoarders, hunters, complainers, protesters and general scofflaws who intend to deal with lightbulb regulation much as their forebearers coped with margarine laws.

We’ll call them the Illumi-naughty.


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29 thoughts on “Margarine, Moonshine and Light

  1. OK — I have run the gamut of thoughts and feelings reading this. Fond nostalgia as I imagine you tinting up that margarine. Fascination to learn about the margarine laws and runs — I had no idea! Intrigued by the whole nature of the gentle deception.

    And then to come full circle with the light bulb — Bravo! I confess, I hate those squiggly things. I use them when it’s a light I leave on often, like the porch light overnight or some such thing. But in anything where I actually want to SEE? Alas. I can see myself providing business to the fellow who whips open his trench coat and says “Wanna buy a bulb?” I am quite afraid I will be one of the first “Illuminaughties” — I’m so glad we have a name for the cause!

    Thank you, my friend, for making me smile at the end of a long, rugged day!


    When it comes to margarine and electric light bulbs, it seems we have serendipity run amok. The US patent for margarine was issued in 1873 and American production began in Manhattan. Edison’s patent for his carbon filament bulb was granted in January, 1880 and his first generating plant was on Pearl Street in Manhattan. The location on Pearl Street is interesting because the word “margarine” comes from the Greek word for pearl – “margarites”. Apparently Mège-Mouries chose the word for his “margaric acid” because of its pearl-like color and sheen.

    Not only that, when Edison was demonstrating his new invention in 1879 he said, “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.” Who knows? Maybe all those folks throwing out their candles helped give rise to the scurrilous rumors that margarine manufacturers were using candle-ends in their product!

    I love the word “Illuminaughties”. It’s a perfect expression of the way a nanny state might see her rule-breaking children – naughty little creatures that we are! And I’m glad it made you smile.


  2. I had an uncle who pronounced “margarine” with a hard “g”. He might even have been right (he often was) as there’s now a Facebook page dedicated to the “correct” pronunciation.

    Speaking of food coloring, I’ve always been surprised by what seems to be a Midwestern preference for yellow (orange?) cheese. I would have thought the folks in dairyland would prefer their cheese au naturel. Perhaps they’re making up for all those years they had to suffer with uncolored margarine?

    As for light bulbs, you can count me among the Filamentarians.

    Al Cyone,

    If your uncle was Greek, or knew Greek, or knew the derivation of the word, he probably knew he was right. I mentioned to Jeanie, above, that the source of the word is the Greek “margarites” and as such would have a hard “g”. I pushed a little farther back, into the Sanskrit and Persian behind the Greek but I can’t verify a lick of that. I did find it interesting, and you can find it here. In any event, the resemblance of the fat to “margarites”, or pearls, was the source of the name.

    I bumped into the cheese discussion in the midst of my research for this piece. I confess to not knowing that annatto was used as a coloring in cheese, or that the vibrant orange glow of some cheddars wasn’t natural. Of course, when you live in the midst of people who truly believe Velveeta is cheese, the color’s the least of your problems.

    Filamentarians. Perfect. Now I’ve got two reasons to grin.


  3. What!? Did you say The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? This is the first time I’ve come across anyone remembering this series! This was my fave TV program as a youngster, still in HK! O, thank you Linda for just mentioning it, and the link. Illya Kuryakin was my hero… hated Solo. And what… Margarine and U.N.C.L.E. … and lightbulbs!? Again, you make the most astonishing associations, Linda.


    If you were a true UNCLE fan, you’ll love this video mashup of scenes from the series. It’s enough to jolt loose a few memories, that’s for sure. I’m tickled to death – I wasn’t sure there was anyone in my little corner of bloggieland who’d remember Ilya and Napoleon. But you did!

    The margarine/butter controversy’s been an issue for Canada as well as the U.S. Quebec finally repealed its colored-margarine ban in 2008. The history in your country is as convoluted and full of passion as it was here. There’s a little summary here.

    As for astonishing associations – margarine and lightbulbs wouldn’t have been one I’d have predicted. But there it is, with a little dollop of the film arts just for you!


  4. “margarine-smugglers” and “butter-busters” So funny!

    How is it that I don’t remember the margarine with the yolk? We did eat butter. It’s difficult to believe. We barely had the necessities, but we were butter people.

    I told a friend a story about our love of butter yesterday. It was Thanksgiving. I knew that I’d be baking. So I bought several pounds of butter. My sister arrived from Florida and said, “I brought a couple of pounds of butter just in case.” Just in case of what? I don’t know.

    Then my brother arrived. I heard him tell his son, “Go out to the car and get the butter out of the cooler.” He had brought a couple of pounds “just in case.” He said we had to have butter to dip our crab and shrimp. Well, sure! Who could argue with that, and if an elephant showed up, we’d have enough to dip him, too.


    I suspect you’re enough younger that the “yolks” were long gone by the time you came along. When Truman signed the new Margarine Act into law in 1950, eliminating the tax on colored margarine, the need for the yolks disappeared and one by one states began repealing their laws and allowing colored margarine back onto store shelves. There were a few holdouts, like Missouri, but I couldn’t find any evidence that the law ever was enforced after the signing of the bill, and manufacturers wouldn’t have kept providing white margarine with yolks for only a handful of states.

    It’s my turn to laugh now, at your “just in case” comments. I can remember being sent to the store before Christmas with the admonition to pick up some extra butter “just in case”. Who knows? Maybe mom was afraid she’d get the impulse to bake a few hundred more sprits in the middle of the night and not have butter.

    The woman I talked to in Representative Lampe’s office said some of the most vociferous opposition to taking Missouri’s margarine laws off the books has come from people who believe passionately that butter’s healthier for folks. Sounds good to me!


  5. I remember my Mom talking about mixing in the color. I am going to smile over Illuminaughties and Filamentarians for the rest of the day.


    It’s amazed me to discover how many people remember doing the mixing themselves, or have heard stories about the practice. I’ve often talked about it over the years, but never explored how the practice came to be.

    As for our “new words” – aren’t they wonderful? If we’re going to have to talk about such things, we might as well do it with a little linguistic flair!

    Thanks so much for stopping by, and taking the time to leave a comment. You’re welcome any time!


  6. We have a similar situation here with weed killer. About four years ago, they started phasing out many of the products that had been readily available, and now the island is pretty much overrun with monstrous weeds with roots the size of large carrots. But I know at least a few people who have begun driving across the bridge to the next province, filling their trunks, and sneaking the stuff in.

    The same type of ban on bug spray has sent the mosquito population soaring. We’re being fooled into thinking we have more choices because the grocery store now carries eleven thousand different kinds of potato chips. But most of those chips are fried in oil, so any day now…


    Let’s see, now. Overgrown, weedy land that has to be hacked through with a machete. Mosquitos swarming like – well, like mosquitos. A constant search for decent light bulbs. That sounds a lot like the years I spent in the African bush, especially if you add in your python. Isn’t progress grand?

    On the other hand, your mention of potato chips does remind me of a very creative suggestion I heard during the last NYC blizzard. It was suggested that, if Mayor Bloomberg was having difficulty clearing the streets, he could use confiscated salt from the city’s fast food restaurants to help out with the situation. See? There’s always an answer!

    Oh – and now you know why I had “dim bulbs” on my mind. I’d been working on this one for a while. Thanks for coming by to read it. ;-)


  7. Wow, the associations you come up with :) A very fascinating story about margarine–I knew nothing of that! And illuminaughties! You made me smile, and I needed that smile today. Thank you.


    Smiles always are good, and word-play always makes me smile. My dad loved puns, and it may be that my love of messing around with words started there. I do remember escaping a trip to my room once by saying, “Oh, Daddy! Don’t pun – ish me!”

    The margarine story’s actually even larger than this suggests – England Australia, Canada and other countries got embroiled in it, too. You’d hardly think so by looking at the number of varieties in the stores today!


  8. Well, I am an Illumi-naughty in the making. Where can I get a batch of ‘heatballs’?


    When I read your comment, I was treated to an immediate mental image of a column of Librizzi Red Ants trucking along, carrying a cargo of heatballs that stretched off to the horizon.

    Obviously, you made your point with the story of the Librizzi Red Ants. Your conclusion to that tale seems to fit here rather well:

    “A few years ago I started to attribute my sometimes stubbornness to my ‘red ant genes’. Some of my friends started to call me the “Queen Red Ant”, especially when they want to encourage me to assert myself. Is it just stubbornness? Absolutely not! It is a desire to assert one’s rights and the willingness to suffer the possible consequences.”

    It’s possible the Illumi-naughty have a Red Ant gene or two.


    Add: I just noticed the Red Ant story was written in 2008 – how can that be! – and isn’t included in Librizzi Ancestors in My Heart, which you created in 2009. You might think about adding it there, if it’s not already in the archives and I just missed it. It’s really such an interesting and amusing tale.

  9. Hi Linda,
    Finally I made it and what a delightful story. For some reason I do not remember “white” oleo. My family called it butter anyway except we all knew it was margarine. Growing up the only time I know I ate real butter is when we visited my Dad’s relatives in Mississippi that had dairy cows and “real milk and real butter”. And I do not remember my Mother ever buying real butter while growing up. But since I have been “grown” I am a “real butter” person!

    Now as for those light bulbs; as all good citizens, I went out and bought a whole bag full of the new light bulbs just to “get with the program”. Thank goodness I kept the old bulbs because within a month they all promptly went back into the sockets. Those new light bulbs do not produce enough light to read or do any type of close work with and I just do not like them at all. And I gave it a fair shot and now I am stuck with a big bag full of the new “coil” lights that I am not going to use.

    I also plan on going out soon and buying up at least a 5 year supply of the old fashion 75 – 100 Watt light bulbs to have plenty until our citizens get this mess fixed!

    Another Great One, Linda, Thank you,


    I imagine you don’t remember the white oleo because you’re just a young’un, too. But you do call it oleo, which is what we called it when I was growing up. Well, at least my Dad and his family did. Actually, my grandparents called it “oley”, shortening the word even more. When I became old enough to realize we were Swedish, and that there were jokes about “Sven and Ole”, I was confused for a while – I didn’t realize Ole was a person, too. I thought they were making jokes about a man named Sven and his artificial butter.

    I do agree with you about the inadequacy of the new light bulbs for reading or close work. Now that I’m dealing with less-than-fully-functional eyes, I need good light. And Mom certainly does, especially for her needlework. Every now and then I think about how the gap is widening between some well-known wisdom and our time. Being told that we’re the light of the world and the salt of the earth isn’t what it used to be. ;-)


  10. I really enjoyed reading this. Clicked on your name after readng a comment of yours on Greg Sullivan’s Right Network piece. Your comment reminded me of our old friend Steve, who was a boat varnisher extraordinaire and although scion of a very old wealthy New England family, lived a frugal life, made his own way and did what he loved.


    How kind of you to stop by, and thanks so much for letting me know you’ve been here. I’ve just recently discovered Greg’s work through Gerard Vanderleun, and I must say the little reading I’ve done there has been like breathing fresh, pure air.

    There’s obviously much I could say about frugality, self-reliance and loving one’s work, but what I will say is that varnishing, woodworking, family-raising, music-making, ship-building, snow-shoveling (!) and writing have this in common: when you finish, there’s something real that’s been added to the world. It’s one reason I just laugh when I hear people longing for “retirement” so they can finally “enjoy themselves”. There’s enjoyment to be had in every day.

    I’m glad you enjoyed this piece.


  11. Like Artie, I loved the reference to the Man from UNCLE – used to watch re-runs as a kid. In South Africa TV came really late and we had really old series on weekly.

    Hate margarine, love butter. . . and heatballs!

    Your mind is a wonderful, crazy maze, Linda, I love your stories.


    Do you suppose it would be out of place to call me “batty”? It would explain a lot, although unlike your visitor I prefer not to bite. Maybe I should start tagging some of these posts “Demented Social Commentary”.

    One of the little details that amazed me was that some states passed early laws requiring that margarine be tinted pink, to make it appear less palatable. And yet, around 2000, green and purple ketchup and pink margarine were being marketed again, this time to kids. I suppose it’s worth noting that I found that info in the “entertainment” section of the Toronto Star.

    Green eggs and ham, anyone?


  12. Oh my goodness! Illumi-naughty! I love it! What an interesting history of oleo! I heard my mother talk about mixing the color into the margarine, but I’d never seen it myself. And I have somehow missed why it is we are being forced into the new bulbs . . . and then a certain political character talks about the US “following in Edison’s footsteps. We’re gonna make stuff and invent stuff”, which begs the question: What kind of STUFF?

    Can’t imagine how much research went into this offering, but I for one do appreciate it!


    Aren’t words fun? And so is history, for that matter. My aunt in Missouri didn’t know any of this, and was ready to confront her dinner companions last night with the fact that they’re all (gasp!) law-breakers! Like Mom, she’d had to color her own margarine, but didn’t have a clue about the reason. As far as she knew, it was just that the manufacturers had decided to do it that way.

    I certainly learned a lot putting this together, and I appreciate you noticing there was “some” research involved. I certainly am gaining new respect for people who can take a big, complicated subject and make it understandable and enjoyable. Quinta’s a perfect example. No wonder it took her ten years to finish that book!

    Be careful with the weather this week. You’re apparently staying a little warmer than we are, but it looks like winter’s ready to give us one more shot.


  13. Illumi-naughty also reminds me of an incandescent nightgown!

    I love the idea of margarine during Prohibition. Would there have been speakeasies as well? Knocking on the secret window, and when it slid open, instead of the sounds of jazz and liquor and dancing there would be sounds (and smells) of frying and baking.


    “Incandescent nightgown” – how funny, and in its own way so 1950s. I suppose it seems so to me because I remember all too well those crazy organza aprons with the frills and appliques that actually were worn in the kitchen. They were pretty incandescent in their own way!

    I don’t know – if things keep on as they are, we may be heading off to the “bake-easys” sooner rather than later. Buttered and salted popcorn as a token of resistance, or chocolate manifestos? Why not?!


  14. OMG, Linda. I knew you’d connect back to the margarine at the end but I definitely wasn’t expecting that! :)

    I have such fond memories of Dad throwing up those margarine packages against the ceiling to mix the as-I-recall red spot in the middle. He got such a kick out of us kids watching him. That was before we moved so I must have been 8. Funny how we remember such things.

    Don’t get Astrid started on light bulbs, incandescent or otherwise. And just the other day I bought some 75 watters that I am having to return because they’re too hot for the lamps we have (and they were out of 60w). Most interesting. I guess they could be used as a heat source if the lamp could withstand it. Never thought about that.

    Don’t you just love how one thought leads to another and becomes part of the collective consciousness!


    Those plastic pouches must have been much tougher than I realized if your dad was able to toss them around like that. The photo of the woman in the apron actually is an advertisement for the plastic, of course. We tend to forget that technological advances didn’t always include circuitry and silicon chips!

    I’m going to be depending on “heat balls” the rest of this week. We’ve got an usual hard freeze ahead of us – three days of 36/25 with snow at the end! – and I just can’t get my big ficus into the house. I’m going to rig it with freeze cloth and a work light and see how things go. I pulled everything else in yesterday, so I’m living in the midst of a jungle.

    It’s tremendous fun watching thoughts bubble and pop, especially among bloggers and especially in places like “Vision and Verb”. You can see people playing off one another, one person’s thought – or photo! – leading to another’s conclusion. All it would take, after all, is someone looking at a couple of boats lying at their moorings in a Dutch harbor, imagining a conversation between them as they wait for spring…. ;-)


  15. A wonderful post. Thanks for filling in a gap in my knowledge of margarine history. When I was a kid, most people who asked for margarine in our grocery store called it “oleo.” Now that term survives only as a solution in crossword puzzles — which do tend to have more and more of an age bias as time goes by.


    I never would have imagined the history to be so complex, so rife with conflict or so very contemporary – at least in the state of Missouri. And of course the “butter vs margarine” battle rages on.

    I did learn an important lesson about butter early in life – that it can be made at home. All it took was a second-grade teacher patient enough to supervise a roomful of kids with Mason jars and inspirational enough to keep us shaking those jars. I still remember the taste of “my” butter on oyster crackers. I nagged my parents for a cow for months.


  16. Linda! I have to come back and read this but am just checking in to say “hi” and that in my research on TS Eliot, have found this bit of nonsense about him: He preferred to write when he had a head cold. Oh for Pete’s sake, I thought reading this.

    Then the other day I got smacked with a cold/flu. I became bored and restless with it, albeit messy and slightly feverish and tried reading, having already said no to TV, music or radio – too loud, blaring. And then I opened my journal. And wrote more than 25 pages.

    What? could the good Mr. Eliot have had something there? I think part of it, though, is that a) no one else wants to be around you so b) you have little or no interruption.

    OK, back later to read and REALLY comment!


    Sorry to hear you’ve been under the weather. I hope you’re on the mend, and I certainly hope this latest round of truly nasty ice/snow doesn’t give you too much trouble. It could be a bad one. (ADD: Just saw that a blizzard warning’s been issue for you. Stay safe!)

    As for my beloved Mr. Eliot… well, I’ve leave the writing-while-ill to him. I’ve not been ill since I began this blog, but I can tell you – I remember “sick”, and writing would be the last thing I’d want to do. On the other hand, this could explain a lot. There are some passages in “The Four Quartets”, for example, that I’ve wondered about – dour and glum is one thing, but he really seemed to be pushing those boundaries. A good cold might be the explanation.

    As for the margarine business, I’ll be interested to hear whether you’ve known you’re a common criminal, being from Missouri and all. Is that margarine on your table, lady? :-)


  17. What an interesting read and I also appreciate all the research. I love your mother’s “Why not make it yellow at the factory?”.


    Mom has a way of asking the pertinent question. That’s what made her so dangerous when I was growing up – some of those questions were directed at me!

    Glad you enjoyed the read. There’s just so much out there that is interesting, waiting for us to ask our own questions!


  18. Hi Linda,
    I decided to play along with a blog chain and awarded you a “Stylish blogger award”. Congratulations on your beautiful blog.

    It’s all explained in my latest post

  19. Seems like a memory unfolded in my mind as I read each paragraph. I couldn’t begin to name all of them, but I recall my mother talking about churning butter and I recall growing up in Ohio my family called it oleo, making the distinction.

    I can sympathize with what went on with the legislators and dairymen. My husband and I had a dairy herd before they taxed the milk in the 80’s and now most dairies are corporate run; milking cows three times a day and lowering the average life span of a cow to 3 years. Didn’t know about the light bulb issue. Wow, what a post. I love that image at the beginning.


    Your wonderful photo of the lightbulb could be iconic, you know. I wonder if there’s a way to capture “essence of CFL” so beautifully. I suspect not – the image might be interesting, but not so beautiful.

    There’s another interesting connection between light bulbs and butter – or milk, in this case. Around the turn of the century, when DeLaval developed what they called their “magnetic milker”, there was enough excess current generated to light the barn. It seems that Edison’s light bulb often was powered by the new machinery that milked the cows that provided the milk that was churned into butter to go on the table….

    Old woman and the fly, anyone?!


  20. Fascinating stuff. Who knew margarine was once contraband? It brings to mind the commercials for tub margarine so prevalent in the 60’s where the non-butter would raise its lid & mutter “butter!” & the tub butter would shout “Margarine” and so on. “If you think it’s butter…but it’s not…”
    I don’t remember oleo that had to be kneaded yellow; it came in sticks (until the tub phase) and was used strictly for baking. Butter was for eating & cooking.

    Oh, and I believe I saw those commercials while watching “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” ;)


    Another “UNCLE” fan! I finally was forced to Youtube to do a search for longer single-show clips, and just laughed. It was another era, for sure.

    The invention of tub margarine was one I took note of. I hated hard stick butter and margarine, and couldn’t get anyone to continue on with Grandma’s tradition of always leaving the butter, salt, pepper, sugar and spoons on the table, with a tea towel over them. (Tea towel? Good grief – that belongs with oleo. Another sign of age.) There always was soft butter at her house, even if you just wanted to spread some on a slice of bread in the afternoon. On the other hand, there always were hot rolls at Grandma’s house, too. They weren’t just for Sunday!

    It’s easy to romanticize the past, but I swear – I’d take “UNCLE” and hot rolls with butter over “Survivor” and a Big Mac any day!


  21. We just went shopping for light bulbs for our new apartment yesterday, and it would have been hard not to buy energy saving ones, as that’s just about all you see, at least at a first glance over here — and a good thing, too.

    I had no idea that margarine had such a colourful — or should I say, “colourless” — history!


    For me, one of the delights of blogging has been the opportunity excuse to explore these nooks and crannies of history. I can’t tell you how many cartoons I’ve seen where someone is saying “Don’t bother me – I’m doing ‘research'”! But research or snooping around, it’s fun – and look at all the neat things we can learn!

    While you’re traveling around Chile, I’m traveling around the archives!


  22. I’m back… I’ve just checked that link you provide for CFL’s, and maybe it’s not such a good thing, then. Thanks for making us aware of that.


    The illumi-naughty always are happy to see another added to their ranks. ;-)


  23. I remember colouring margarine in much the the way you described; what a marvelous invention that plastic bag with included dye packet. Before that the dye was an orange powder packaged separately which had to be added to the brick of veggie grease and mixed with a beater; created a mell of a hess!

    For the filimantarians: Now that the bureaucrats (in Ontario at least) realize that fluorescent light bulbs contain mercury, they have backed-off their ban of incandescent bubs until they can figure out a way to legislate CFCs from becoming landfill. Now, if you find the opportunity, snag a bunch of ‘farm’ (incandescent) bulbs which last so much longer. They are designed for electrical surges (130V) which would fry regular heat balls.

    Loved the UNCLE vid. Also remember Howdy Doody, Maggie Muggins and the Mouseketeers? (Not to mention the Lone Ranger, Have Gun Will Travel, Get Smart, and lots more)

    1. Rick,

      I’ve not heard of the powder-and-grease business. You’re right – that’s a process that needed amendment.

      I ran into a clerk in Home Depot last month who was trying to sell me on the virtues of the LED bulbs. He showed and he told, and then mentioned that, yes indeedy, they did cost $25 each. My expression must have said it all – he quickly added, “But they last forever!” Right.

      For the time being, it’s not an issue in my life. By the time everyone comes to their senses, I’ll still be basking in the glow of incandescent light – I have a “few” extras in my closet. ;)

      Howdy Doody? A favorite, especially Princess SummerFall WinterSpring and Clarabel the Cow. I had a Clarabel horn on my bicycle. Annette was my favorite Mouseketeer – and yes, I still can sing the song. I’d not heard of Maggie Muggins, though. The time frame is right, but the country is wrong – we didn’t pay much attention to Canadian tv/radio. I suppose we couldn’t have gotten the stations even if we’d wanted to – when I started watching tv, we still thought the test patterns were cool!


  24. What a great blog! I would like to have a dollar for each margarine pouch that I coloured with the yellow colour bud and all on account of ” politics” and the dairy lobby.

    1. Silvia,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it – and thanks for your lovely comment! Those were fun days. If we’d gotten those dollars as kids, we would have been rich, for sure!

      Funny to think that politics did give us some great memories. It would be nice to think that some of today’s wrangling could do the same, but I’m not quite so sure about that!


  25. I am so sad your post didn’t pop up (on Google) when I was researching my margarine post. It brings to life all the information I was discovering about the margarine vs dairy struggles that took place across the world. You lived the margarine story; I just ate the stuff when it was available, and when it wasn’t I ate butter. Love all the connections with light bulbs and pearls. And your neologisms are brilliant; incandescent really.

    1. Wasn’t that a time? So many of the “food battles” are couched in health terms, when health has nothing to do with it, and butter vs. margarine was one of those. Lard vs Crisco was another. I’m sure there were more.

      One of the greatest life skills I learned while working overseas was how to work around an overly-intrusive and over-regulating government. It’s entirely possible that those skills will serve me well again before I die. Of course, those lessons are best served up with a dollop of humor — as we both know.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. It’s always fun to find someone else who’s paid attention to such arcane subjects as the margarine wars!


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