No Margarine for Error

Following World War II, big dairy tried to get Americans to kick their margarine habit.

Margarine being spread on a slice of bread

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A wartime butter shortage forced many American families to switch to margarine. The dairy industry did its best to imply that margarine was slow poison, even backing laws that prohibited dyeing the lard-colored product a buttery yellow. With the war over and new taxes and fees being put on margarine to discourage its sale, the editors saw a revolt coming.

—From “Why Can’t We Have Yellow Oleo?,” Editorial in the September 7, 1946, issue of The Saturday Evening Post

Oleo now sails under its own steam and makes no claim to be butter at all. However, its producers would like to color it yellow because consumers’ habits are what they are.

The reason we predict a revolution is that millions of people who were forced to accept margarine because of the butter shortage have come to like it. They will now be far more critical of regulations designed to throttle competition for the benefit of a group of producers who could not possibly meet the total demand for their product.

The extraordinary sales resistance to postwar butter, when it arrived on the markets at $1 a pound, is a hint that the public is in the mood to shop around and will increasingly resent being told what it can buy and what color must be used in the lubricants people spread on their bread.

The full editorial runs below.

“Why Can’t We Have Yellow Oleo?,”

Editorial, September 7, 1946

One result of the war, during which you could get very little butter and were forced to use oleomargarine instead, may be a revolution against the selfish and nonsensical laws and regulations by means of which the dairy lobby in at least twenty states has managed to curtail the distribution of oleo. In some states grocers are not permitted to sell it colored yellow, and the housewife or her husband is forced to mix a small capsule of coloring matter into the white mass. Lest there be any gap, the federal government imposes a ten-cents-a-pound tax on the interstate distribution of colored margarine. A long list of states imposes special taxes, license fees and other squeezes for the privilege of selling margarine.

In Pennsylvania, where the annual license fee for selling margarine is $500 for wholesalers, $100 for retailers and $50 for hotels, we are pleased to report that the worm has turned. More accurately the wholesale grocers have attacked these regulations as confiscatory and contrary to the terms of the Constitution. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s story is that they are “health regulations,” which stem from the butter lobby’s effort to convince people that oleomargarine is slow poison. Actually, oleo contains many of the vitamins and other ingredients which appear in butter. In any event, oleo now sails under its own steam and makes no claim to be butter at all. Its producers would like to color it yellow, however, because consumers’ habits are what they are.

The reason that we predict a revolution is that millions of people who were forced to accept margarine because of the butter shortage have come to like it. They will be far more critical than hitherto of regulations which are designed to throttle competition for the benefit of a group of producers who could not possibly meet the total demand for their product. The extraordinary sales resistance to post-OPA butter, when it arrived on the markets at one dollar a pound, is a hint that the public is in the mood to shop around and will increasingly resent being told what it can buy and what color must be used in the lubricants people spread on their bread.

This article is featured in the September/October 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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