Sunday, June 10, 2012
The Butter Wars
New York City,
When five members of a congressional subcommittee came to New York City in April 1880 to inspect the new factory of the Commercial Manufacturing Company, the firm rolled out the red carpet, hosting a dinner at Delmonico’s in honor of their visit. The menus, printed on satin of various colors, were typical for a grand banquet of the Gilded Age. What is unusual about the menu shown below is what it doesn’t say—golden blocks of margarine were placed on the table to accompany the meal. And even more, the low-cost butter substitute was reportedly used in the preparation of these classic French dishes.
Oleomargarine, as it was then called, was introduced in the United States in 1874. By the early 1880s, the Commercial Manufacturing Company had become the country’s largest producer, making about 50,000 pounds a day. However, this early success proved to be short-lived as the local dairy associations in New York, followed by those in Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio convinced their state legislatures to ban the manufacture and distribution of “bogus butter.” Although the New York law was struck down as unconstitutional, the damage was done. In 1885, only five years after being featured on the cover of Scientific American magazine, an honor bestowed during the same month as the banquet, the Commercial Manufacturing Company went out of business. Making matters worse for the surviving oleo producers, the Federal Margarine Act of 1886 imposed a tax of two cents per pound on the product and annual licensing fees on manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers, causing margarine sales to plummet. Remembered as the “Butter Wars,” these were the first skirmishes of what turned out to be an eighty-year lobbying campaign by the dairy industry to protect its market.1
Newspapers reported that both margarine and butter were served at the dinner in 1880; neither was labeled so the guests could make an unbiased judgment as to which one they preferred. However, it seems doubtful that the banqueters consumed a quarter of a pound of margarine per person on average, as claimed by the New York Sun. Puffery in food reporting was not unusual then, just as now. In fact, much of what passes as the history of restaurants and food products is based on commercial hype that acquired a patina of credibility over time, when no other evidence surfaced to challenge the original claims. In this case, even the menu does not indicate whether Delmonico’s venerable chef, Charles Ranhofer, really substituted margarine for butter in his recipes that day.
1. In 1949, Congress repealed the tax on colored margarine; President Truman signed the Margarine Act into law the following year. Minnesota and Wisconsin were the last states to relent, repealing their anti-margarine laws in 1963 and 1967, respectfully.