Victory’s Spread

by Carl Zebrowski

Those who were children in the 1940s remember the triumph of margarine. It was often their job, after all, to turn the white, lard-like stuff into something resembling edible. "You got a little capsule that you broke that had yellow color in it, and you mixed it in to make it look like you had yellow spread," recalled Barbara Pontecorvo, a wartime resident of New Jersey whose words appear on the website of the Wayland (Massachusetts) High School History Project. Many war-era youngsters had never heard of margarine, a.k.a. oleo, before the war, and they grew up believing it was invented in response to wartime shortages and rationing of butter. In fact, the bogus butter had been around for three-quarters of a century.

The French are to thank, or, depending on your perspective, to blame. Louis Napoleon III, emperor of the country known the world over for its rich, buttery dishes, offered a prize to the inventor of a cheap edible fat that could supply the military and the lower classes. Hippolyte Mége-Mouries responded in 1869 with a concoction of animal fats and a few other ingredients that he dubbed "margarine," from the Greek margarites, or "pearl," which his product supposedly resembled in an early stage of its manufacturing process. It was also known as oleomargarine—oleo for short, from the Latin oleum, "oil."

By the early 20th century, most margarine was made from vegetable oils, without any animal fats, which made it easier to spread and cheaper to produce. The process of hydrogenation—introducing hydrogen into heated oil—turned the liquid oils into a solid.

Margarine caught on right away in Europe and was brought to the United States in the early 1870s. As production increased over the years, prices dropped and margarine looked to become a popular, low-cost alternative to butter. This possibility caught the attention of the American dairy industry, which did what any industry would do in the same situation: it lobbied politicians to protect its economic turf. The industry launched a propaganda campaign that ran strong for decades, paying off in the form of federal and state laws that did everything from banning the sale of margarine to requiring it to be dyed black.

Courts shot down the most egregious of those laws, but the ones that survived for the long haul—taxes and coloring bans—did a lot of damage. The ostensible reason behind outlawing artificial yellow color in margarine was that it was designed to fool consumers into believing they were buying and using genuine butter. There was a kernel of truth to this exaggeration: some unscrupulous bulk dealers of margarine did try pass off yellow margarine as butter. But the real reason behind the dairy industry’s push for coloring bans was that a butter substitute that looked like lard was not going to win over potential buyers who wanted something appetizing to spread on their bread. By 1895, 19 states had adopted laws forbidding the sale of yellow margarine; by 1932, that number had risen to 27. Soon, margarine sales in America had fallen to half their peak.

In a clever work-around of the anti-coloring laws, margarine makers began packaging artificial yellow coloring in capsules or wafers with their white product. These do-it-yourself kits for consumers were a success. Now that margarine could promise a fairly appetizing appearance, all that was necessary for sales to take off was for WWII rationing to take its prime competitor all but out of the picture. Positive health-related findings announced at the National Nutrition Conference in 1941 didn’t hurt, either. Soon much of America was using margarine in lieu of butter at least some of the time.

Not everyone applauded this culinary development. Margarine’s most vocal detractors may have been the children who had to mix in the coloring. "I used to hate the icky margarine squeezing out between my fingers," recalled Betsy Voorhees of Herkimer, New York, writing on "When the war ended it was like a miracle not to have to mix margarine, and to a kid that was something to rave about." Plenty of people objected to the flavor of margarine, too. "It was sort of a dirty word in our house," wrote Helen Wheatley of Norway, New York, also on "We were fortunate, for most of the time we could buy butter from a lady who had a jersey cow and made her own."

By the time the war ended, margarine was well established in the American market. Federal and state bans, taxes, and licenses began to fall by the wayside. By 1955, only two states still had laws forbidding the sale of yellow margarine. The last coloring ban stood all the way to 1967. The lone holdout? Wisconsin. Any state known as America’s Dairyland might have been expected to fight so doggedly over the stuff that buttered its bread.

Carl Zebrowski, a former daily newspaper editor and managing editor of Civil War Times and Columbiad magazines, and the author of the book Walking to Cold Mountain: A Journey through Civil War America, is the managing editor and website editor of America in WWII. This article originally appeared in the June 2005 issue of the magazine. Order a copy of this issue now.

Images: Details from a wartime ad for Nucoa brand margarine.


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