The 1870s Dairy Lobby Turned Margarine Pink So People Would Buy Butter

Margarine or butter? The question has deep roots, and you shouldn’t even ask it in Wisconsin

Can you tell which it is? Wikimedia Commons

Butter and margarine have been fighting since the foodstuff was invented in 1869.

Though the spread is less expensive than butter, which was good for consumers faced with skyrocketing dairy prices in France (where it was invented), the low price of margarine wasn’t good for dairy farmers on either side of the Atlantic. “Oleomargarine,” as it was then called, was as much of a hit in the United States as it was in Europe. It arrived in the 1870s, writes Rebecca Rupp for National Geographic, “to the universal horror of American dairy farmers.” In the decade after margarine arrived, she writes, 37 margarine companies sprang up to make the stuff.

The dairy lobby wasn’t about to let butter get put out to pasture, though. Cue the Margarine Wars, a conflict that was waged in the courts, in the legislature and on the streets, between ‘wholesome’ butter and ‘unnatural’ margarine.

Behold, two early salvos during the Margarine Wars:

Smear Campaigns

After margarine was introduced, writes The New York Times, butter producers were quick to respond to this threat to their market. “The dairy industry undertook a marketing campaign to convince politicians and the public that margarine was unhealthful and was being improperly sold as butter,” the newspaper writes.

The margarine smear campaign—which included all kinds of dicey language about where margarine producers were getting their oils and the milk products they used—resulted in the 1886 Margarine Act, which was the first of a series of laws imposing restrictive tariffs and fees on margarine producers.

They didn’t all stick, but the damage to the burgeoning margarine industry was done. The spread was actually banned in Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin (of course) and Ohio, writes the New York Times.

“Margarine, its foes proclaimed, threatened the family farm, the American way of life, and the moral order,” writes Rupp. “Senator Joseph Quarles of Wisconsin (the Dairy State) thundered that butter should come from the dairy, not the slaughterhouse.  ‘I want butter that has the natural aroma of life and health. I decline to accept as a substitute caul fat, matured under the chill of death, blended with vegetable oils and flavored by chemical tricks,’” he yelled.

“Pro-butter political cartoonists pictured factories dropping everything from stray cats to soap, paint, arsenic, and rubber boots into the margarine mix,” Rupp writes, “and a barrage of dubious scientific reports hinted that margarine caused cancer, or possibly led to insanity.”

Pink Margarine

For a while, the state of New Hampshire mandated that margarine be tinted pink. Sellers of non-pink margarine could face a fine of $100 or sixty days in prison.

On this day in 1898, the Supreme Court struck down that law.

“Pink is not the color of oleomargarine in its natural state,” the Court stated in its ruling. The law stating that margarine had to be colored pink rendered the product “unsalable,” the court concluded:  “To color the substance as provided for in the statute naturally excites a prejudice and strengthens a repugnance up to the point of a positive and absolute refusal to purchase the article at any price.”

The judgment argued that even though margarine producers were technically allowed to sell margarine—provided it was pink—they effectively couldn’t sell their product, because nobody would buy pink margarine.

The Court might have been wrong about that: Green ketchup was pretty popular in its heyday (though Heinz eventually discontinued the product as the novelty wore off).

Today, most margarine is yellow, and most people don’t believe it causes mental illness. But ideas about the rightness of butter persist. Take this recent Dunkin’ Donuts lawsuit: “Jan Polanik… sued 23 Dunkin’ Donuts locations in Massachusetts for serving him ‘margarine or a butter substitute’” instead of the real thing, writes Daniel Victor for The New York Times. Dunkin' Donuts settled earlier this year.

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