When bootleggers smuggled margarine
On Wednesday, Dec. 7, 1966, the Sheboygan Press ran a story entitled “Dairyland’s Housewife Bootleggers.” Great title, but it’s probably not what you think.
The story goes on, “There’s a little old lady from Sheboygan who is a bootlegger. Every six months she drives 100 miles south on Highway 41, crosses the Wisconsin border into Illinois, stops at a roadside stand, and has a large brown box put into the trunk of her car. Then she drives home. Her contraband: Yellow oleomargarine.”
She was part of a group of Badger-state residents who openly flouted state law, a law that made it illegal to buy or sell colored oleo, a product vociferously denounced by dairy farmers as axle grease.
Our beloved butter had no competition until 1869, when a French chemist patented a lower-priced spread made from beef tallow. Called oleomargarine per its Latin roots, it was hoped the lower classes of humanity and the military would benefit from a lower-priced product; though, truth be told, neither group liked it.
Margarine arrived in the United States in the 1870s, praised by the poor and vilified by dairy farmers. Within the next decade, 37 companies in the U.S. began manufacturing margarine.
Margarine and butter were fightin' words, especially in Wisconsin, culminating in the Oleo Wars. For nearly a century after, the newspapers were full of legislative action dealing with the spreadable duo.
Passion ran so high from the dairy industry that in 1886, a restrictive tax was levied on margarine; a permit was also needed to sell it. Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio banned margarineoutright.
The drama reached a fevered pitch when foes of margarine in Madison's statehouse proclaimed it threatened the family farm, the American way of life and the moral order. Impassioned speeches were made in defense of "sweet and wholesome" butter. Senator Joseph Quarles of Wisconsin bellowed that butter should come from the dairy, not the slaughterhouse.
A Wisconsin representative from the La Crosse area was so fearful of the threat to butter that he defended it with a Bible verse. Noting it was the principal industry in the Euphrates Valley thousands of years before the coming of Christ, he continued with a quote from the book of Genesis, "and He took butter and milk, and set it before them ... The wicked and the hypocrite shall not see the brooks of honey and butter."
Butter reigned supreme until the poverty of the Great Depression and the butter shortages of World War II forced a change; margarine inevitably began to bypass butter in sales. Price was one factor, but sales also rallied because of improvements to its recipe and looks; hydrogenated vegetable oils replaced animal fat, and by a clever sidestep of the yellow ban in which white margarine was sold with a capsule of yellow food coloring. Buyers simply squished the two together to produce a beautiful, yellow, non-butter spread.
Even with the added taxes, margarine remained the cheaper alternative. These combined factors set the stage for the oleo smuggling, when margarine sold legally in Illinois commonly came across the border hidden in many a car's trunk.
By the 1960s, federal support for butter waned as lobbies for soybean and cottonseed oil producers gained strength. Dairy-producing states gradually gave in to market pressure and dropped oleo regulations.
That is, everywhere but in Wisconsin, where until 1967 it remained a crime — punishable by fines or imprisonment — to use yellow margarine.
For decades, the two ran neck and neck, but in our present clean food movement, butter is winning: as of 2014, butter surpassed margarine as America's favorite spread. Each American now eats an average of 5.6 pounds of butter a year, compared to 3.5 pounds of margarine.
New evidence has shown that the trans fats in margarine are detrimental to our health, far worse than butter's natural saturated fat. But to most Wisconsinites, the honest truth is that real butter just plain tastes better.
Beth Dippel is the executive director of the Sheboygan County Historical Research Center