Battle of the Bread Spreads

A brochure created in the 1930s to encourage consumption of Wisconsin butter. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

In the 1950s and 60s, Wisconsin had a smuggling problem so widespread that state officials all but looked the other way. The contraband in question–not drugs or weapons, as you might guess–was margarine. Yellow margarine, to be precise.

Dairy farmers took the late 19th century introduction of margarine to the Midwestern marketplace personally: many viewed the product as unwholesome and (when colored to resemble butter) downright fraudulent, an industrial threat to the agrarian lifestyle. That perceived threat initiated a battle of the bread spreads that would last decades, with dairy interests typically prevailing. For years margarine, primarily the colored variety, was taxed and regulated by both federal and state governments. And no state fought longer or harder to edge out its oleaginous opponent than Wisconsin, which by 1915 had staked its claim as the nation’s Dairy State. Between 1895 and 1967, using colored margarine here was a crime, punishable by fines and/or imprisonment.

Historian Gerry Strey chronicles the epic butter/margarine conflict in an article called Oleo Wars: Wisconsin’s Fight Over the Demon Spread, which I found in a back issue of The Wisconsin Magazine of History. As Strey tells it, emotions ran high among dairy sympathizers of the day. One of the more famous examples of their collective frustration occurred in 1931, when farmers marched on the State Capitol in Madison. “Down With Oleo! Farm Crusaders Cry” read the lead story in the Wisconsin State Journal on December 16th of that year.

The traveling Smithsonian exhibition Key Ingredients: America by Food,  currently taking place in Reedsburg, features a display about another  protest that took place in the 1950s. On Wisconsin Public Radio recently to promote the exhibition, curator Donna Neuwirth explains how Green Butter Day came about: “Apparently the editor of the paper in Sauk City launched a protest and said, ‘Rather than eat your damned yellow oleo, we’re going to dye this vat of a ton of butter green’  … they did, and they sold out by mid-day. And the entire issue of that week’s paper was printed in green ink. ” (Wisconsin history enthusiasts will be interested to know that this same newspaperman, Leroy Gore, also wrote the consequential editorial Joe Must Go. In 1954, Gore’s opinion piece launched a movement to recall Senator Joseph McCarthy.)

Green Butter Day in Sauk City. Photo submitted by Donna Neuwirth.

Donna Neuwirth says the Green Butter Day account was “just one of the many stories we’ve unearthed” for the Key Ingredients exhibition. She says that particular display, which includes the Sauk-Prairie Star article and other oleo artifacts, has elicited lively conversation among people who experienced the oleo versus butter controversy firsthand. My own mother used to talk about purchasing a sort of DIY butter substitute–uncolored margarine sold with yellow dye and a plastic bag. The product, never outlawed, allowed consumers to mix their own yellowish margarine. And my aunt tells me that my grandparents staged their own butter/oleo taste test back in the day (but interestingly she can’t remember which product our farming kin backed, or which won).

Even with the added taxes, margarine remained the cheaper alternative. So consumer loyalty for butter began to erode during the Great Depression and faded even further during the food rationing times of World War II.  Federal support for the dairy spread waned, too, as lobbies for soybean and cottonseed oil producers gained strength. As a result, dairy-producing states gradually gave in to market pressure and eased up on oleo regulations–all except Wisconsin, that is, where the margarine ban remained on the books the longest. These combined factors set the stage for the aforementioned oleo smuggling, when margarine sold legally in Illinois commonly came across the border by the trunkload.

As we all know, Wisconsin legislators did finally relax their anti-margarine stance. Though a few regulations remain in effect, most restrictions on margarine were repealed in 1967.

The Wisconsin Historical Society sells gift items, like this t-shirt, for butter loyalists. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Interested in learning more? If so, I highly recommend:

–Gerry Strey’s 2001 article, which is exhaustive but never boring. Demonstrating an impressive knowledge of legislation, market forces  and consumer behavior, Strey weaves an engaging tale that spotlights some of the colorful characters behind the controversy.

Key Ingredients: America by Food, on view in Reedsburg through Dec. 3  (in conjunction with the Reedsburg Fermentation Fest). Visitors will find photographs, artifacts and panel displays, presentations and local food-related art, all dealing with the ways history, culture and environment have shaped national and regional dining habits.

–Larry Meiller’s interview with Donna Neuwirth on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Wisconsin Statute 97.18 details current “oleomargarine” regulations. If you’ve made it this far into my post, I’m betting you’ll find these interesting–maybe even a bit surprising.

By Tammy Kempfert, PortalWisconsin.org

2 Responses to Battle of the Bread Spreads

  1. Paula says:

    When we went on school bus trips with my Catholic grammar school from Milwaukee to Chicago, we were “armed” with neighborhood orders for oleo (ala Girl Scout cookies). The bus always stopped at Fosslands on the way back. Our teachers (nuns, no less)would work Mr. Fossland for an excellent price. They then upmarked the oleo for us to deliver back in Milwaukee. We sat with our knees in our faces the resat of the way ack, since the bus floor was covered with cases of oleo. I was doing God’s work.

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