Younger generations may find this topic humorous but to the participants involved in the butter-oleomargarine war some six decades ago, the conflict wasn’t laughable at all. The senior generation well remembers when conflict between city and farm was a feature of life throughout the U.S.
The agricultural community viewed margarine as an intruder, like a counterfeit food alien. The artificial ingredients that went into “oleo” struck fear and suspicion into customers. At least that’s the way the agricultural community viewed it.
The name of the butter substitute has a complex history that dates even before modern-day seniors were in their juvenile years. The story actually begins in Europe where food shortages, particularly of edible fats, sparked a search for a cheap and nutritious butter substitute. A French scientist and inventor came up with a multiform process that combined heat, pressure, carbonate of potash and beef fat to produce oil that, when churned with a small amount of milk, water and yellow coloring, resulted in a palatable substance that was cheaper and kept better than butter.
The process received a U.S. patent in 1873, and the Oleo-Margarine Manufacturing Company of New York began producing the product that same year. U.S. manufacturers worked to improve the original process and by 1886 there were 37 American plants making oleomargarine.
That’s the early history of the oleo story. As the dairy industry continued to grow and move westward, states like Wisconsin and Minnesota became favorite territory. Most farms produced butter for additional income. Butter making normally fell into the hands of the farm wife.
The agriculture industry continued to grow and organizations were formed to lead the way. Such legislation like labeling and packaging restrictions came with new tax structures. One of the restrictions prohibited the manufacture and sale of margarine colored in imitation of butter. The color restriction and taxation were the major weapons for the Wisconsin dairy farmer against the competition.
Now fast forward to World War II when rationing created new problems for Wisconsin farmers. Food staples, gasoline, rubber, copper and fabrics for making clothes were some of the items rationed by the federal government. Oleo was substituted for butter on many family dinner tables. Oldtimers will recall the oleomargarine, white and sealed in a clear plastic bag with a yellow coloring capsule.
Some men had a difficult time accepting the substitute for butter. Many housewives were probably guilty of perjury after convincing their husbands that butter was used in packing their sandwiches for work, and for the cooking process at home.
It didn’t take long for word to spread in the neighborhood when the corner grocer received a supply of butter. Housewives reached for their ration coupons and rushed to the market to fetch a pound of butter, often a half-pound, before the delicacy was sold out.
In many stores, butter was scooped out of a large tub much like ice cream was scooped from buckets. There was no wasting the precious butter once it reached the family kitchen.
Oleo was more available and a better buy in Michigan than it was in Wisconsin in the war years. Some seniors have a few favorite stories about how the disloyal farmers living near the Michigan border would sneak into the Wolverine state and fill up their trunks with cases of oleomargarine for their personal use.
WWII ended in the summer of 1945, and five years later the oleomargarine feud was still in progress. In 1950, Congress was preparing to appeal the federal tax on oleo, much to the chagrin of the American farmer. The issue was studied in committee for months and lobbying was intense on the part of the agricultural industry.
Following is a brief recap of what the new bill regulating oleomargarine looked like:
■ When served in public eating places the individual patties must be triangular in shape.
■ When sold in stores there must be on the label of the package (A) the word “oleomargarine” or “margarine” in type as large as any lettering on the label; (B) a full statement on all the ingredients of the margarine; and each part of the contents of the package must be in a wrapper which bears the word “oleomargarine” or “margarine” in type not smaller than a half-inch high.
■ Federal taxes to be repealed include colored oleomargarine at retail 10 cents a pound, and the uncolored product at retail one-fourth cent a pound; $600 a year on oleo manufacturers; $480 a year on wholesalers of the colored product; $300 a year on wholesalers of the uncolored oleo; $48 a year on each retailer of the colored product; and $6 a year on retailers of the uncolored oleo.
If you think there is fiery lobbying and political haggling today when it comes to taxes and regulations on food and other hot item products, try envisioning the bitter hassles that occurred over the tax issue on oleomargarine in the 1950s.
A grocery ad for Menacher’s Store in Menominee offered oleo at 23 cents a pound, butter at 63 cents a pound, and lard at 25 cents for two pounds. Grocery competition was exceptional in the 1950s and advertising filled several pages in local newspapers.
WWII was responsible for forcing many Americans to use margarine for the first time, thus giving oleo a slice on butter’s market. The acceptance of margarine among consumers during the war is displayed in many of the cook books of that period in history. By the end of the long conflict, margarine had a place on family tables across Wisconsin. It had lost the stigma of the “poor man’s food.”
One cookbook margarine didn’t make, however, was one published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The popular 96-page publication favored by housewives omitted any mention the butter vs. margarine feud. The booklet featured recipes for making pies, cakes, pastries, cookies and other desserts, but it never mentioned whether butter, margarine or some other oil ingredient were options.
The cook book of memories is filled with stories about the butter-margarine dispute witnessed by seniors in the 1940s and ‘50s.