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.