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Butter and margarine have been at war since the latter was invented in France in 1869. Made from beef tallow, “oleomargarine,” as it was originally called, arrived in the United States in the 1870s. It was marketed as a cheaper and less perishable alternative to butter. This threat to butter sales led many American dairy farmers to wage campaigns against the new product in legislatures and courts, insisting that margarine was unnatural, unhealthy and sold fraudulently as butter. They raged against the product, claiming it was “flavored by chemical tricks.”

In 1885 Pennsylvania’s legislature passed a law making it illegal to manufacture, sell or possess with intent to sell oleomargarine. The Pennsylvania State Archives holds records of an 1898 court case concerning a general store in Tamaqua, Schuylkill County, that was found selling oleomargarine as butter (Record Group 47.361, County Governments, Schuylkill County, Clerk of Courts, Criminal Case Files). Special Agent Robert M. Simmers from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture had discovered the fraud and advised the store owner and employees, Julius, George and Philip Kolb, to stop selling the oleomargarine. Simmers took two samples to have them analyzed by Professor C.B. Cochran of the Department of Agriculture. Cochran concluded that the samples were margarine and not butter.

The Kolb brothers continued to sell the oleomargarine as butter, despite being warned a second time. Thereafter, Simmers filed suit against the Kolbs on two charges: selling oleomargarine and selling oleomargarine as butter. They were found guilty of selling margarine as butter and were each fined $50 and ordered to pay all court costs as well as the cost for analyzing the samples that were taken. The Kolbs’ attorney appealed the verdict to the Superior Court, where the original ruling against them was affirmed in 1899.

This was not only a Pennsylvania issue, however. It was a national controversy. The campaign by the dairy industry to discredit margarine resulted in the federal Oleomargarine Act of 1886 that imposed restrictive taxes and licensing fees on margarine producers. During this period, margarine was also banned outright in Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. The act remained in effect until 1950.

New Hampshire, Vermont and South Dakota enacted laws requiring margarine to be dyed an unappetizing pink in order to be sold legally. When manufactured, margarine is a white, lardlike color. The margarine manufacturers wanted to tint their product yellow to help sales. Butter manufacturers claimed that yellow margarine was fraudulent, made to look like butter in order to deceive the public. By 1902 color restrictions on margarine were imposed in 32 states. Wisconsin only repealed its margarine color restriction law in 1967.

During the butter shortages of World War II, margarine began to surpass butter in sales throughout most of the country. Manufacturers of margarine got around the yellow color ban on their product by including a capsule of yellow food coloring in the package. Consumers merely had to put the yellow food coloring in the white margarine to create a butter-colored spread. By 2014 butter had again overtaken margarine as America’s preferred spread.


Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the award-winning book Soldiers to Governors and numerous articles on military, political and sports history.