Children of another age, we tickled one another beneath the chin with plump, pollen-heavy dandelions, giggling and asking, “Do you like butter?”
Of course we liked butter. Everyone did. Butter was a double treat, as palatable as ice cream or candy, but never consumed alone. With butter on the table, we knew there would be yeast rolls, or biscuits, or mountainous mashed potatoes surrounding an overflowing, golden lake. On special mornings there would be buttery cinnamon toast: crusty with sugar, and heavy with the scent of spice. When holidays arrived, butter flaked our pastries and lightened the crumbling cookies.
Had we been able, we would have lived an all-butter life, but lacking a cow and a churn, we had to find our butter at the grocery, and prices were high. For weekday toast and sandwiches; for slices of bread on the supper table; for pancakes and waffles adrift in syrupy seas, we made do with margarine.
Significantly less expensive than butter in late 1940s and early 1950s Iowa, margarine arrived from the store as an unappetizing blob of white fat encased in clear plastic. A deep orange color capsule, about the size of an egg yolk, was tucked into the package. Kneading it into the margarine turned the white blob yellow and created at least the illusion of butter.
It required some effort to make the margarine table-ready, but not so much that a child couldn’t do it. Sitting on a tiny, three-legged stool, I forced the deep orange yolk into one corner of the bag, pressing down with the flat of my thumb until it broke. Kneading the bag as though coaxing bread alive beneath my hands, I pressed the ribbons of color through the slick, white fat.
Rolling the bag itself like a rolling pin, pushing against the heavy plastic with my fist, I turned and kneaded and turned again until the color became smooth and even, no longer striated with ribbons of orange but lovely and light — the very color of butter.
At the time, I had no way of knowing my task was rooted in the work of French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès (1817-1880), a man I like to imagine invented the phrase “Je ne peux pas croire que ce n’est pas le beurre” (“I can’t believe it’s not butter”). Shortly after Michel Eugène Chevreul discovered a substance he called “margaric acid” in 1813, Mège-Mouriès won Napoleon III’s competition for the right to create a butter substitute.
Working at Faisanderie, the imperial farm 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 wasn’t pleased by the introduction of the new product. Their dissatisfaction transformed itself into the so-called “butter wars” — a series of impassioned national and international struggles marked by propaganda, protectionism, and populist rhetoric. After 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.
Despite the clear regulations, 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 not only helped guarantee the purity of butter, it 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 a presumably 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, annual licensing fees of $600 on manufacturers, fees of $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 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. Like other frustrated Minnesotans, they made regular forays across the border into Iowa, their cars filled with aluminum coolers and dry ice.
To a casual observer, it would have 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 what we called butter-busters: margarine-runners of the first order, veritable Smokey-and-the-Bandits of imitation butter.
They made no effort to hide their intent. Filling cart after cart with heaps and piles of margarine from the dairy cases, they just grinned at the checkout clerks who asked, “So. How’re things up north, then?” They traveled from store to store and town to town until the coolers were full, then 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; it 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 rivaled that of the rum-runners in the Prohibition era. The majority of margarine-runners were fine, upstanding citizens who mowed their grass, helped their neighbors, paid their bills, and coached their kids, but they were equally capable of plotting, conniving, hoarding, and conspiring 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 lives.
Today, the margarine wars are over. Even Missouri, whose 1895 law banning colored margarine was one of the most stringent in the country ($100 fines for a first offense, $500 and up to six months in prison for repeat offenders) has moved on to other things, and repealed the law.
More recently, light bulbs replaced margarine as the battleground, and incandescence became a hot topic. According to Reuters, a German entrepreneur named Siegfried Rotthaeuser evaded the European Union ban on incandescent bulbs of more than 60 watts by importing and distributing 75 and 100 watt light bulbs from China, calling them “small heating devices,” or “heatballs.”
Since incandescents produce far more heat than light, Rotthaeuser realized they could be sold as heaters without violating legislative provisions. Even he was surprised when the first 4,000 heatballs sold out in three days, but at last report, he was expanding his business. Clearly, you can’t keep a good entrepreneur down.
As hysteria over light bulbs reached levels rarely seen since the margarine wars, I couldn’t help wondering: would people leave fat, old-fashioned Christmas lights to family members in their wills? Would men in slovenly trenchcoats hang about hardware store alleyways, seeking business with a whispered, “Pssst! Lady! Wanna buy some hundred watts?” Would desperate needlework artists frequent seedy neighborhoods, tapping on closed doors with tiny windows and choking out the password, “Edison sent me”? Would there be a black market? Lightbulb-runners? Hoarding? Protests? Would users of incandescent bulbs be nicknamed the Illumi-naughty?
In the end, of course, common sense prevailed, just as it did in the butter-and-margarine conflicts. Technology advanced, the markets adjusted, and people found creative ways to overcome restrictions they considered onerous.
What comes next is hard to predict, but that there will be a “next” is inevitable. As long as it doesn’t involve coffee, chocolate, or Tempranillo, I think I can cope. If it does, I may have to call my margarine-running friend for some tips.