Historical Event

Margarine struggles to replace butter until government drops taxes and restrictions.

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Meanwhile, there was another pioneering food item delivering hydrogenated oils to Americans: margarine.IX Compared to Crisco, margarine had a far more mixed reception. For one, it didn’t arrive in a class of its own, like Crisco. And it was intended not just for cooking but for direct consumption. Margarine replaced butter, a symbol of America’s pure and hallowed heartland, and was therefore far more suspect. As the first ersatz food to be widely manufactured, it raised a near-metaphysical question about the essential nature of food. What should a person make of a butter substitute? Artificial food products were not the norm in the early twentieth century. There were no imitation crab cakes, meatless “sausages,” or coffee “whiteners.” Now we’re fairly blasé about the coconut oil that might be masquerading as cheese, but back then food was still pretty much as it had been for generations. Thus, margarine “and its kindred abominations” were considered a “mechanical mixture” created by “the ingenuity of depraved human genius,” as Minnesota governor Lucius Frederick Hubbard declaimed in the 1880s. It was common to call margarine manufacturers “swindlers” and their trade “counterfeiting.”X

On the other hand, margarine was cheaper than butter, and that was its main appeal for housewives, who slowly began to embrace it. The dairy industry reacted fiercely, lobbying for an unparalleled number of taxes and other restrictions on margarine. From 1917 to 1928, bills attempting to protect the dairy industry from margarine were introduced in every session of Congress, although most died in committee. The federal government passed four major pieces of margarine legislation, the last of which, in 1931, almost entirely prohibited the sale of all yellow-colored margarines (white margarines that did not imitate butter were considered more acceptable). State governments also passed their own laws, with varying degrees of restrictions on margarine sales.

In a nod to how ludicrous the legislation became, a Gourmet magazine cartoon showed an elegantly dressed woman standing before her seated guests at a dinner party, announcing, “In accordance with Title 6, Section 8 Chapter 8 of the laws of this state, I wish to announce that I am serving oleomargarine.” And newspapers commonly recounted stories of housewives carpooling across state borders to buy margarine where laws weren’t so strict.

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