The history of oleomargarine

Local History

This past spring I was examining the 1874 Vermont Journal published in Springfield. As I scan these old papers looking for local historical information I often find other stories that capture my interest. One headline, “Artificial Butter” caught my eye. While this isn’t local history I found it interesting and think you will too. It reads:

“Artificial Butter”

  “Oleomargarine is the name of the artificial butter which, having had such an extensive sale in London and Paris, is now becoming popular in New York and Boston. There are two of these oleomargarine factories in New York, one in Fifty-sixth street and one in Twenty-ninth-st. They produce daily 19,000 pounds which, with the product of other factories in the vicinity of the metropolis, makes the yield more than twenty-three tons per day.

  The butter is made from the yellow, tasteless and odorless oil that is obtained from beef suet. The oil is placed in churns, with one fifth of its weight of sour milk and churned until an emulsion is formed, annatto being added to give it the required color. It is then cooled and worked and salted like common butter. It is estimated four thousand tons (eight million pounds) have been consumed in this country in the last eight months. What the effect of the increased use of the article will have upon the cow question is a problem we will leave to others.” 

Artificial butter printed in the 1874 Vermont Journal published in Springfield, Vt. Photo by Ron Patch

Many people my age or older will remember oleomargarine served on our tables in the 1950s. That margarine was white, resembling lard and came with a dye that was mixed with the margarine to obtain the familiar yellow color of butter. My mother didn’t bother to mix the dye with the margarine; she served the white, lard looking margarine on the table as it was.

Most of us have always thought oleomargarine was something developed in WWII as a replacement for the butter shortage. So when I saw this article I was curious to know more. Below is what I learned.

Napolean III was seeking a substitute for butter and created a contest for people to try and create a butter substitute. Napolean wanted an inexpensive substitute for his army troops and lower class citizens. It was in 1869 when a Frenchman, Mege-Mouries, successfully developed margarine.

Mege-Mouries named his new product, oleomargarine, which he patented in 1869. His margarine had little commercial success so in 1871 he sold the patent to a Dutch company. That same year a German pharmacist, Benedict Klein established his first margarine factory.

Also in 1871, Henry Bradley, of Binghamton, N.Y., received a patent for creating a new margarine process. His patent combined vegetable oil and animal fat. Other men using hydrogenation of plant substances improved Bradley’s process.

Between 1900 and 1920 margarine was commercially produced using animal fats with hardened and unhardened vegetable oils. The Depression of the 1930s, followed by WWII led to a shortage of animal fat. This spelled the end of the ‘original’ oleomargarine. The shortage of animal fats and changes in food laws forced oleomargarine producers to change their formulas. By 1950 margarine was made of vegetable oils. This would be the product many my age remember from the 1950s.

In recent decades manufacturers have sought to develop a more healthy margarine. Most companies no longer use hydrogenated oil and most margarine is now ‘trans-fat’ free. Some companies have made great strides using one third of the fat with lower calories resulting in a healthier product.

Other companies have added Omega-three-fatty acids with reduced salt, olive oil or vegan oils. There is no doubt that scientists will continue to develop and improve margarine in coming years.

The photo with this article is the July, 1874, Vermont Journal published in Springfield, Vermont.

The July 22, Chester Historical Society was a huge success. We established a new record for our July sale with proceeds totaling $2800. Thanks to all who so generously donated items. It is the support from area residents that makes us a self-sufficient organization. Thank you all.

This week’s old saying, “Florida is God’s waiting room.”

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