The history of margarine

Writer Christine Baumgarthuber has a really interesting article in the June issue of Dissent magazine about what working-class Victorians ate, and how their diets (and health) changed with the introduction of relative convenience foods, cheaper sugar, and margarine.

I don't know the cultural history of food—or the medical history of changes in public health—well enough to know whether Baumgarthuber's piece represents a full, nuanced perspective. (Dissent is a well-written and frequently interesting magazine, but it can't really be called an unbiased source.) But I did want to share a short bit from that article about the invention of margarine, which is absolutely fascinating:

Sometime in the 1860s the enterprising French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès made an important discovery. He took a pound of beef tallow soaked beforehand in a solution of 15 percent common salt and 1 percent sulfate of soda, slowly rendered it at 103 degrees Fahrenheit, poured in gastric juices of a pig, and sprinkled it with biphosphate of lime. This curdled mixture he spun in a centrifuge before adding a splash of cream. The resulting opalescent, jelly-like substance tasted much like butter.

This substance not only won Mège-Mouriès a prize offered by Emperor Napoleon III, who desperately sought a cheap, long-lasting, and easy-to-produce substitute for butter to feed the poor and his antsy army; it also secured him a place in history as the father of oleomargarine, which he patented in 1869. Two years later he sold the patent. Not long after a German pharmacist, who adapted the Frenchman’s formula, commenced its industrial production by establishing the Benedict Klein Margarinewerke.

I grew up eating mostly margarine, rather than butter. In my memory, that's what all of my friends at as well. In fact, I distinctly remember reading Matilda for the first time in grade school and being confused by the book's portrayal of eating margarine as a sign that someone was truly poor. From my perspective back then, butter was a hard, un-spreadable, depressing thing that you only bought when you couldn't afford a tub of Country Crock.

That personal memory made the article really interesting for me, as it traces the history of why margarine was food-for-the-poor. It also adds some background to that Matilda memory by quoting some contemporary public moralizing from the UK about poor people and their dietary choices. Since growing up, I've been able to put my childhood confusion into context in a number of ways, but this is the first time I've read some real background on the history of margarine in a cultural context. Really neat!

Read the full story at Dissent

Via Alexis Madrigal

Image: CWS Gold Seal Margarine. Co-op magazine advert, 1960, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from sludgeulper's photostream



  1. I grew up on margarine, but it got really unpopular in the 90’s because of some heart disease concerns. Which is funny on its own, because in the 80’s my parents bought margarine as it was thought to be the healthier option.

    But for quite a few years, I really disliked the taste of butter and preferred margarine. Fast forward to about 2005 when margarine had disappeared from my diet, I noticed my tastes had inverted and I preferred butter. Margarine comes off as too greasy and salty these days and even the thought of putting it on my toast makes me go “ugh”.

    Not sure there’s a point in all that, other than me being mystified about how human tastes work.

    1. I Norway during the 80s-90s there was a big push to get people away from butter and onto plant based margarine, this to cut down on cholesterol and resultant heart issues. To this day i, and anyone i know, mean plant margarine when they say butter, and label butter as “dairy butter” (quick translation from “meieri smør”).

    2. Which is funny on its own, because in the 80’s my parents bought margarine as it was thought to be the healthier option.

      While it probably can’t be justified on any real grounds, I can’t help but feel a little smug with my memories of the 80’s. “Huh? This crap can’t possibly be better for you than real butter! That’s just advertising.”

  2. It was also a toxic hydrogenated mixture that was pronounced a healthier alternative to butter in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s…all the while creating an entire generation of arterial clogging when butter itself turned out (like eggs) to be a healthier alternative to the “healthy alternative.”

     I find it vile. 

      1. Only because you’re alive to not agree more. If you were dead of clogged arteries, you wouldn’t be here to not not agree more, so I call selection bias!

  3. Nowadays I make my own version of my own margarine.
    One third butter and two-thirds olive oil, plenty of crushed fresh garlic, some onion powder, paprika and just a touch of basil.  After a night in the fridge, the damned thing spreads like a chunky Country Crock (because of the garlic bits, you see).

      1. It started for the garlic bread (just add a little Parmesan), now I use it on sandwiches instead of mayo and also toast the bread a bit, which also toasts the garlic… good stuff.

  4. My grandma was a health food nut and was always talking about the evils of margarine. Needless to say, I was raised on butter. And the cat was always eating it. Oh, childhood memories.

    1. Which probably led to an early (less than 16 years) demise for the cat. Seriously, don’t feed cats dairy products. Yes, they *like* them, but it isn’t good for them at all.

      1. Much like how we humans will gorge ourselves on salt and sugar, even tho they are well documented as sources of health issues.

      2. Just an anecdote, I guess, but growing up I had a cat who lived well beyond 20, drinking milk every day.

        I suspect that cats are a lot like people, and one of the best things they can do for longevity is choose the right parents.

  5. Wow, Maggie, I’d have figured you’d have known more if you were in Minnesota.  I was at the Wisconsin Historical Museum last year, and they had a boat load of info about the butter/margarine battle in the dairy producing states.  I don’t remember anything about it down IL way, but I do know that even today, you see places making the distinction in the midwest, whereas try to ask them for butter at a Waffle House, and see how confused they are when you say “no” to their little margarine packets.

    And some of my early memories about butter vs. margarine made a lot more sense after seeing the exhibit.

    In fact, I think Wisconsin still has laws about restaurants & butter to this day.

    I don’t know if the museum still has them, but they had some great shirts/refrigerator magnets with old 50’s anti-margarine ads.

    1. I grew up in Kansas. We didn’t really have much of a dog in the butter v. margarine fight down there. I am surprised, though, that I haven’t run across more of this history in the seven years I’ve lived in Minneapolis, though. Apparently, I’m not going to the write obscure museums. 

        1.  Originally, beef tallow.
          Later, vegetable oils. But then you partially hydrogenate them to make them more solid. More recently to reduce trans fats some switched to a mix of unhydrogenated and fully hydrogenated oils instead.

    2. My great-uncle (in WI) used to work in the dairy business. He carried around business cards that said, “I really enjoyed your meal, but it would have been better with real butter,” and he left them at restaurants. My grandmother (in IL) used to tell me about people from WI driving across the state line to buy oleo. 

      1. My mom grew up in WI and told me the same thing about going to IL to buy contraband margarine.  I read once that when margarine became legal in WI, it was still illegal to add coloring to it.  My mom confirmed this, saying that the tubs would actually come with a little blister of food dye in the lid that one would pop open and mix into the margarine to complete the butter-like effect.

  6. I thought that the spreadable stuff of my childhood was not infact, technically speaking, margerine, because that had long ago been banned for health reasons?

  7. A teacher of mine was telling me just last week about a government-issue “butter-like substance” that he remembers from the WWII rationing days. It was a cube of bright white goop with a pink button on the top. When you were ready to use it, you popped the button and the pinkish liquid leaked into the rest, and after you kneaded it for a while it looked like butter. I wonder if this was just color-it-yourself margarine?

    1. My parents remember that angle, but didn’t mention the government-ration angle. The color packet was a dodge around the ban on coloring margarine to look like butter.

      My grandparents ran a restaurant. For a while, as a sop to the dairy lobby, restaurants had to get (buy?) and display a Margarine License, which I guess was supposed to shame them into serving good honest butter.

    2. Yeah, it was blueish before you mixed in the color packet.  My aunt still complains about it.

  8. The downfall of margarine for me was when they started cutting it with water.  Yes, butter is part water, but when I was a kid we’d melt Parkay onto popcorn.  It melted like butter, it poured like butter, and it stuck to the popcorn like butter.  (Mostly)  But they started making margarine lighter by adding water, and if you try it on popcorn today, the popcorn absorbs the water and becomes a gooey mess.  Same thing happened with a grilled cheese sandwich.  It went from crisp to soggy.  That’s roughly when I decided to just use butter for such things because it works better.

    1. Some margarines contain (or did the last time that I used it c. 1980) particulate matter, specifically little bits of soy. If you’re using it to fry things, it works quite differently than butter.

  9. this article is really about much more than margarine/butter – it’s about how the entire industrial food system keeps people less healthy, while simultaneously selling us stuff under the idea that it IS healthy.

  10. Margarine was such a big deal in Newfoundland that when it was incorporated into Canada the 1949 Newfoundland Act has a specific section regarding the rights and restrictions on how the federal government can regulate margarine.

  11. So disappointing.  As a Wisconsinite the hatred of margarine is so ingrained that basically I’ll never be able to respect you or anything you write ever again.  (jk – but kinda… Maggie Koerth Baker?  Yeah, she seemed smart but then I found out she eats margarine!)p.s. there is a trick to spreading cold butter… you don’t really spread it.  You use a sharp knife and run it right under the surface and take off thin slices that you then apply to your bread. You gotta know the technique.

    1. Or you just cut thicker slices. I love butter, so I cover my bread with a lot of it. There is no such thing as too much butter.

  12. Butter only gets hard when people are silly enough to store it in the refrigerator.

    1. I prefer my butter cold.  Besides, it starts to lose its flavor quickly at room temperature.  It also goes rancid pretty quickly (2 days-ish at 70 o F).  That’s why people wanted margarine back in the day, is because it kept un-refrigerated.

      1.  Mine sits on top of the fridge, for 2-3 weeks sometimes, never had an issue and it still tastes better than margarine.

    2. Those of us who grew up without air conditioning had to either store it in the fridge or serve it in a cruet.

      1.  Well, cruets sound kinda suspect. It should come in an aerosol can, like real American food. We could call it “Ghee-Whiz”.

      2. I don’t currently have AC and I store butter in the cabinet (only the stick I’m using). Did people stop using butter in the summer months before AC was invented?

        1. I grew up without AC, and it gets hot in southern Ontario during the summer. We only used butter, and it kept in its glass butter dish in the pantry just fine all summer long. I didn’t know people kept butter in the fridge until I was in my 20’s.

          1. >>>it gets hot in southern Ontario during the summer.

            Like four afternoons in a whole year.

          2. Well in Massachusetts in the summer, unrefrigerated butter liquifies.  Maybe the laws of physics are just different there.

          3. Antinous – you just need a better/cooler larder. 

            Seeing as the average high for Massachusetts is 27C and the high for Toronto is 31C there’s no reason your butter should melt and ours doesn’t. Perhaps don’t store it in the sunlight?

  13. It came as a one-pound white block and looked like lard. There was a small packet ot dark yellow powder you stirred into the margarine in a large bowl. My sister and I thought it was nasty and wouldn’t eat it. We still won’t.

  14. I’m actually surprised that no vegans have come out on this thread to support margarine. Not that I’m one myself, but I thought that vegans were correlated with the leftist audience of this blog.

    1. I thought that vegans were correlated with the leftist audience of this blog.

      I think that it might be time to rinse your filter.

        1. Actually, I’m not sure that it’s meant as a foodstuff. They just used to have it around in The Little Rascals.

          1.  Goose fat is used as a foodstuff. Nigella Lawson briefly doubled sales here by mentioning it on her TV show. I think it’s waned recently, being replaced by duck fat.

            My grandfather preferred dripping on his toast.

            I don’t think any of these would go well with marmalade, though.

          2. @Beanolini Is that why it is suddenly being displayed much more prominently in supermarkets? I can’t say I had really noticed it before.

          3. @Wreckrob8:disqus  It was 2006 that Nigella mentioned it, so it probably depends what you mean by ‘suddenly’. Might have taken a while to filter down to mainstream supermarkets, I guess.

        2. You can buy tubs of duck fat in a good french deli.
          Best stuff in the world.
          Cook with it, fry with it, put it on your toast with a pinch of salt.

      1. Copy that. Also, beef drippings, schmaltz (chicken fat), or ghee (no lactose) also work very well.  If you’re a vegan, or just want something with less flavour, pure organic coconut oil which is solid but spreadable at room temperature works well too. 

        I’ve used all of these but on a daily basis I use ghee and coconut oil  for health reasons among others. Ghee and coconut oil have the added benefit of not needing to be kept in the fridge. Ghee, when properly stored keeps and is said to improve for (literally) over a century.  


  15. While it all ended badly (IMO), I gotta give a tip ‘o the hat to the guy who ate a mixture of beef tallow, salt, sulfate of soda, pig stomach juice and biphosphate of lime in the name of science!

    …Country Crock…

    To this day I can’t read that as anything but ironic.

    I know it’s a bit pompous of me, but I’m still surprised by how often I enter into a conversation like this at a diner:

    “Excuse me, may I have some butter?”

    (At which point they bring me additional little plastic cups ‘o Crock.)

    “No, butter.”

    1. I do that when dining out in the states and I ask for milk for my tea. They usually bring me “creamer” – which is not dairy, or if I’m lucky actual cream. And when I insist on “real” milk I get it in a 6oz juice glass. :)

      God forbid you ask for vinegar for your fries in the south-west! :)

      1. Trapped at work one night I was drinking Sanka, which is like coffee, but it isn’t, with Splenda, which is like sugar but it isn’t, and coffeemate, which is like cream, but it isn’t.

  16. When I was a kid in the ’60s, my parents told me we ate margarine because we couldn’t afford butter. I could see the difference in price at the grocery store. But the “really” poor folks had real butter, because it accompanied government cheese that was made from milk bought up by the government to support dairy farms and keep prices steady. I like both butter and margarine, but butter still seems like a treat. And country crock? That stuff’s nasty! Soybeans and water -and can’t be called anything but “spread.”

  17. To be absolutely clear, anything that congeals at room temperature you should not put into your body.  It will collect along the lining of of your colon, in your liver, and what gets through to your bloodstream will collect along the walls of your arteries and contribute to hardening an blood clotting. This includes the so-called ‘healthy’ vegan alternative, coconut oil.

  18. Perhaps the reason Maggie didn’t like butter is because US butter (at least in my limited experience of it in North Carolina) is a peculiar substance not very similar to butter in Europe (or Australia/New Zealand) which unless it is actually very cold is always quite spreadable.   It seems that American butter is not ripened/cultured so that all you end up with is hard white cream.  When I found some ‘European style’ butter in the local Wholefoods store and got an American colleague to try it his words were ‘Now I understand what the fuss is about’.

    Perhaps someone which actual knowledge of the craft of butter making in various countries and cultures can explain the differences, and perhaps correct me.

    1. American butter is “sweet” butter, which means that the cream is fresh, although the term has come to mean unsalted. European butter is usually made from fermented cream.

      American pastry also tastes different from European opastry because we usually use salted butter, versus unsalted in Europe. For Americans who are used to a salt-sweet flavor, European pastries can taste quite unpleasantly bland.

      1. Well, pastry comes in many varieties in Europe.  In home baking in the UK it would be most likely that if butter were used it would be salted, not sure about the rest of Europe but where I live (Norway) unsalted butter is a very small part of what is sold in the supermarkets.  Industrial baking all over Europe often uses margarine except for pastries specifically sold as containing butter or those sold as premium products. 

        Of course not all pastry is sweet and not all pastry contains either butter or margarine.  At the risk of starting a war I’ll just mention Cornish Pasties which have pastry made with lard not butter and, of course, it is not sweet.

        1. Cultured butter is making huge inroads in the foodie set in Canada, so much so that our largest grocery chain just came out with their own store brand of cultured butter. So good. I must admit, I eat it like cheese.

  19. One of my family members was arrested for purchasing large quantities of margarine and mixing in the dye packets to resell it on the black market as butter in the great depression. 

    As far as dairy in America vs. dairy in Europe goes, we do a lot of things different. Americans pasteurize their milk at a high temp quickly, which kills all the flavor and the nutrients which then have to be added back in. Europe does it the other way. Low and slow, preserves nutrients and flavor. European cheese is also cured for longer, like 65 days or something. American cheeses are cured for a lot less time, 14 days if I remember(I very well may be wrong with that number) which means there is a lot more lactose in American cheeses. Generally speaking, in america, food is made quickly without a whole lot of quality.

  20. I live in a middle to lower middle-income suburb and noticed as a kid every other household using marg. If there was butter it’d only be used for cooking. 

    But I don’t think it was because of budgetary concerns or anything; the ’80s and early to mid ’90s may have been the low point for butter consumption and I could remember how many ads there’d be for marg. The state dairy board had ads that talked about cheese and milk but not butter. It’d just seemed like everyone else preferred the canola taste.But coming to my household we had all sorts of fats, solid or liquid. We had duck fat, dripping and lard before it was cool, and proper cultured butter made a Greek guy two suburbs over!

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