Fake Butter (6-24-1911)

Chicago bootleggers were in the news today.  They were selling margarine.

Oleomargarine—to use the proper name—was first created in France in 1870.  The idea was to provide a low-cost substitute for butter, using animal fat.  Margarine came to America a few years later.  It soon became popular.

The dairy industry fought back.  Several states passed laws restricting margarine, and the first federal statute was enacted in 1886.  Any company that wanted to make margarine had to pay a hefty excise tax.  Adding yellow coloring to pseudo-butter was banned–coloring would make it look too much like the real thing.

Margarine Tax Stamp

Margarine Tax Stamp

Illinois had strict margarine laws.  Now the state food commission was cracking down. Inspectors reported that six Chicago businesses had been caught trying to pass off margarine as butter.
The most persistent violator was the so-called Consumers Butter Company.  The proprietor had been fined in the past, and seemed to be up to his old tricks again. One accused lawbreaker was a door-to-door salesman.  He had called at the Lindstrom home on Wentworth Avenue, and sold Mrs. Lindstrom several packages of fake butter at 28 cents a pound.  Bad move—Mr. Lindstrom was a state food inspector.
Daily News cartoon

Daily News cartoon

A few years before, Congress had passed the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act.  Americans were worrying about what they ate.  Critics of margarine said it was an unsafe product.  Many consumer advocates had the opposite view—they argued that the dairy lobby was just trying to get rid of competition.

The feds didn’t care much about the health angle.  They were mainly interested in collecting their tax money.  A person who sold margarine without the U.S. tax stamp was cheating the government.  That put him in the same category as a backwoods whiskey peddler.

 Margarine Moon Shiners

Margarine Moon Shiners

In Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s federal court, two “margarine moon shiners” had been convicted.  Each man faced a five-year term in federal prison.  The judge reduced their sentences, because they were only employees, and didn’t own the illegal business.  But they still drew eighteen months in Leavenworth.

The war over margarine continued for decades.  The federal government lifted most of the restrictions with passage of the Margarine Act of 1950.  By then, most states had relaxed their own laws.  The last to do so was Wisconsin—the Dairy State—in 1967.




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