Margarine, an imitation butter spread typically made with vegetable oil and animal fat, first arrived in the United States in the 1870s, setting off a protracted war with America’s dairy farmers. Pro-butter combatants spuriously claimed that margarine caused a variety of illnesses and might even lead to insanity. And when margarine companies wanted to tint their product yellow, to make it more appetizing, the dairy industry howled, claiming that yellow margarine was a plot to deceive the public. By 1902, a majority of U.S. states had imposed color constraints on margarine. Vermont, New Hampshire, and South Dakota passed laws demanding that margarine be dyed pink. Other states proposed that it should be red, brown, or black.
Claiming butter is better:
- In 1869, a French chemist patented an alternative to butter made from beef tallow. He called it oleomargarine, from the Latin oleum, meaning beef fat, and the Greek margarite, meaning pearl, a nod to its shimmering white appearance.
- In 1886, lobbying from the dairy industry led to the passage of the federal Margarine Act, which imposed a tax on margarine and demanded that its manufacturers pay prohibitive licensing fees. Six U.S. states banned margarine altogether.
- Sen. Joseph V. Quarles of Wisconsin summed up the pro-butter stance: “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.”