The Margarine Wars

“Mound of Butter” ~ Antoine Vollon, National Gallery of Art

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.
“Oleomargarine bill passed both Houses, to please the dairymen”

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.


Comments always are welcome.

Spending Time

On the timeless prairie

Amid a flurry of autumn traditions old and new — carved jack-o-lanterns, homecomings, pumpkin spice latte —  discussions of a less happy tradition arise, inevitable as falling leaves. As the clock adjustments required by the end of daylight saving time grow nearer,  a little inconsequential and mostly congenial grumping about the practice can be heard across the land.

Some don’t care which official time prevails; they only wish for an end to switching back and forth. Others, in favor of keeping the practice, argue the case for a national policy. Most seem to consider the fuss over “falling back” or “springing forward” nothing more than a relic of the past, like barn-raisings and butter churns. Continue reading

Benton Harbor: A Man For Our Time

Steamship “City of Benton Harbor” Near St. Joseph/Benton Harbor, Michigan Lighthouse

For nearly two centuries, the legacy of Missouri’s Benton family has continued to spread.

Maecenas Benton, United States Attorney (1885-1889) and Congressional Representative from Missouri (1897-1905) happened to be the father of Thomas Hart Benton, American regionalist painter and muralist.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which houses many of his paintings, is located in Bentonville, Arkansas, a town named in honor of his great-great-uncle Thomas Hart Benton, a five-term Missouri senator whose efforts on behalf of Arkansas statehood were substantial.  After the first county in Arkansas was named “Benton” as a tribute to the Senator, the site designated as the county seat became known as Bentonville.

Arkansas wasn’t the only state that profited from Senator Benton’s attentions. Only six months after Arkansas’s [¹] 1836 admittance to the Union, Michigan became the next state to join.  Benton Township was established there on March 11, 1837, and in 1865, one of the first towns in the area, Brunson Harbor, became Benton Harbor: also in tribute to the Missouri Senator who helped Michigan achieve statehood. Continue reading

Going Small, and Coming Home

With no rain to ruin the concerts and no drought to curtail the fireworks, Houston’s annual Freedom Over Texas festival has been expanded into what promoters call an “extraordinary extravaganza” — a day-long series of Independence Day concerts and amusements meant to conclude with a  “spectacular” fireworks display.

The festival exemplifies the sort of hyperbolic excess dear to the hearts of civic boosters everywhere. Washington, D.C. is promoting its own traditional fireworks as “spectacular,” and of course New York City will be “displaying its patriotism through massive fireworks.” Boston intends to celebrate “in a big way,” while San Francisco will provide “magnificent” and “breath-taking” sights. Not to be outdone, San Diego, Key West, Little Rock, and Huntington Beach have upped their game, promising to rival even the nationally televised shows. Every year, program planners around the country seem determined to live by the well-known rule: “Go big, or go home.”
Continue reading

Flight From Floydada

Grain Elevator in Floydada, Texas
Yes, indeed. It’s that time again. About every two years, as summer settles in with its attendant annoyances — heat, mosquitos, politicians who drone on more loudly than cicadas — the urge to re-post one of my all-time favorite stories overtakes me.
Whether you’ve read this humorous tale once (or twice) before or whether you haven’t, I hope you enjoy both the story and the song. Some say humor is the best medicine, and I suspect we all could use a dose or two at this point.

Floydada, Texas is cotton country, although it’s also known for good pumpkins, and likes to advertise itself as the Pumpkin Capital of the US.

It’s a flat, expansive piece of Panhandle real estate, a land marked by impossibly distant horizons and days barely distinguishable one from another. Strangers develop a habit of looking around, as if to orient themselves. Even Texans who’ve grown up with the wind, the dust, and the storms say it aloud now and then, as if to remind themselves: “This place will run you nuts, if you let it.” Continue reading

Decorated Graves, Decorated Lives

As with so much in our national life, change has come to Memorial Day. Flags continue to fly, patriotic garlands hang from porch railings, and bunting flutters in late-May breezes. Nevertheless, in ways both subtle and obnoxious, Memorial Day has become primarily a beginning-of-summer ritual: a time to focus on beaches, barbeques, mattress sales, and the first road trip of the season.

In truth, the slowly-fading history and significance of Memorial Day is both more complex and more interesting than most Americans realize. 

With the ending of the Civil War, commemorations spread across the South as mothers, wives, and children of the Confederate dead decorated the graves of their fallen soldiers.

Thirty years later, American writer and illustrator Howard Pyle wrote about Decoration Day for the May 28, 1898 issue of Harper’s Bazaar:

At that time, the outward signs of that flaming and bitter strife were still fresh and new. The bosom of nature, ploughed by the iron of war, had not yet healed. Everywhere were smoke-blackened and shattered shells, each at one time the patriarchal mansion of some great slave-holding planter.
Woods and glades were thinned out by the storm of shot and shell that had torn through them with iron hail. In one place or another long rows – rank upon rank – of shallow mounds stretched up hills, along the level, through the woodlands: battalions of graves hardly yet covered with the thin young grass.
Upon a dozen battle-fields were great cemeteries, each consecrated with its baptism of blood, and there North and South lay in stillness, soldiers stretched side by side, in a fraternity never to be broken, because the Angel Israfel himself had set his seal of silence upon it all.
“In Memoriam” ~ Sophie Bertha Steel
It was to these battle cemeteries, greater or lesser, that the women of the neighboring country brought their offering of flowers.
There is something very full of pathos in the thought of those poor Southern women who had suffered so much and who had endured to such a bitter end – of those patient women of grief bringing their harmless offerings of flowers to these stern and furrowed fields of death, there to lay the fading things upon the bosom of each mound.
The North, it is said, was remembered at those times as well as the South. One cannot but hope this may be true, for it is beautiful to think of one woman of sorrows in the South reaching out an unseen hand to some other and unknown woman of sorrows in the faraway North.

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued orders that on May 30th of that year all posts should decorate the graves of the Civil War dead with flowers – both North and South – thus formalizing what had become customary.

After World War I, the focus of the day was expanded to honor all those who had died in all American wars, and Memorial Day began to replace Decoration Day as a term of reference. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress and placed on the last Monday in May.

By the years of my midwestern childhood, the rituals of Decoration Day had become firmly established. On the weekend preceding the holiday, we traveled to family cemeteries to clear away grass from the stones, trim the bushes, and plant fresh flowers. The town’s Boy Scouts, 4-H members, and church youth groups helped the Veterans of Foreign Wars place flags on veterans’ graves, so that all who served would be remembered.

Classroom lessons included the history of significant battles, and Presidential speeches. We created red, white and blue pennants containing patriotic images – the Tree of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, or Lady Liberty’s torch – and posters containing words we barely apprehended: Freedom. Peace. Courage.

Always, there was time for personal memories. World War II lay only a decade in the past, so tokens of that time were common: rationing coupons for gas and sugar; ribbons and medals awarded for bravery; photographs and correspondence from the front.

Once year, I shared a letter from my Uncle Jack, who fought in the Pacific but lay buried in Manila. His letters somehow disappeared into the great maw of time, but I have my father’s words to his brother:

We got your letter today and were sure glad to hear from you and that you are OK. It must be something over there. We kind of figured you must be up in the front, as we had not heard of you for some time…
Saw in the paper that the kid I used to ask you about was wounded over in Leyte. From that I figured you must be in there, too, as he is in the same division as you. Things must be bad there in more ways than one. From the papers it sounds like you are doing OK, though. Sure hope so…
Had you heard that Don was wounded? He was hit by a piece of flak. I guess his flying days are over from what he says. Sure hope you get through this campaign without injury. It sure must be nerve-wracking to fight all day and stand guard all night…
Take care of yourself and be careful. Hope this thing is over and you get home pretty soon. Write when you can…

Once school was dismissed on Friday, the routine never varied. Saturday morning meant a parade. In the afternoon, we cooked for Sunday’s trip to my grandparents’ home and then, at Sunday worship, we listened as a deacon read the list of congregational members killed or missing in action. We sang hymns acknowledging the realities of worldly conflict, and listened to sermons meant to comfort those still grieving their loss.

On Memorial Day itself we returned to the cemetery for flag ceremonies and speeches: a different sort of comfort.

On May 30, 1896, Father John J. Woods, pastor of Brooklyn’s Holy Cross Church, delivered some typical remarks. After members of the Veterans and Sons of Veterans’ Mutual Benefit Union marched with a fife and drum corps past decorated houses and cheering crowds to Holy Cross Cemetery, they heard these words, later reported in The Brooklyn Eagle.

“Where in the history of the world can be found any preamble or constitution as that of America? Its enunciation carried hope and consolation to the downtrodden and afflicted of every country, its promulgation and realization by a handful of valiant patriots sent consternation to cruel tyrants and earthly potentates, and proved that more than a human hand guided the destinies of the young republic.
The corner stone of this republic was laid in the noblest blood that ever flowed in battle, for it was shed for principle and God-given rights that no tyrant or power can stifle, much less destroy.
Our forefathers grabbed the sword and musket not to extend their territory or possessions, not to further ambitious objects, but to protect their heavenly gift of liberty. ‘Who will dare,’ cried they to the world, ‘deprive us of our right to seek happiness? Who will dare fetter us by unlawful and excessive taxation? Who will deny us the right to worship our Creator according to the dictates of our consciences? None, unless at the loss of our fortunes, our lives and sacred honor.”

Always, Decoration Day closed with a concert in the park. Battle-scarred or whole, old or young, bereaved by conflict or blessedly untouched, we gathered to hear the familiar songs.

After singing along with Cohen’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and clapping and toe-tapping our way through Sousa marches, our program invariably concluded with “The Battle Hymn of Republic.” Sometimes there were tears, and Peter Wilhousky’s arrangment still touches me: recalling as it does a time, not so long ago and perhaps still recoverable, when people of every political stripe, of wildly varying economic status, of every faith or of no faith at all, were willing to set aside differences in order to stand together in reverence before the majesty and mystery of a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

As we come to our own Memorial Day celebrations, honoring those whose graves we decorate and cherishing the memory of their service on our behalf, perhaps we would do well to remember that lives, too, can be decorated: draped with the selflessness, integrity, honesty, and valor that constitute the best garlands of citizenship.

If we choose to live by such values, we may yet ensure that our dead have not died in vain; that our nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that, in the words of Lincoln, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Battle Hymn of the Republic, arr. Wilhousky

Comments always are welcome. Illustrations come from a collection of family postcards. The post, updated from one previously published, still is relevant.

Lunch At The Miracle Cafe

If I hadn’t stopped to chat with Jeffrey Casten as he loaded soybeans into his semi, or been drawn into the woodworking shop by the aroma of fresh sawdust, or taken time to wander the field behind the abandoned school, I might have been a little farther down the road. But three o’clock had come and gone, and I was hungry.

Dropping south from Osage City, traveling through country rich in scenery but poor in amenties, it occurred to me that lessons learned about keeping my gas tank full might also apply to my cooler. I’d grown accustomed to convenience stores every few miles in Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. Their absence in rural Kansas surprised me. I began to suspect I’d have to wait until Emporia to find a meal. Continue reading