Back in the day, your great-grandma’s margarine may have been dyed pink. Why on earth? It wasn’t a fashion statement. It was required by law—one that some people even skirted by smuggling. (That didn’t stop her from making this crazy-amazing coffee cake1)
Here’s what happened:
The Dairy and Margarine Industries Go to War
When margarine was invented in 1870, Wisconsin’s legislators did not take kindly to the new butter substitute, and neither did the strong dairy lobby. To protect rural dairy farms, they passed an 1895 bill banning the sale of margarine dyed yellow to look like butter. Because margarine was less expensive than butter, lawmakers hoped this would keep the dairy industry from collapsing.
That law was part of the beginning of the Oleo Wars, named after oleomargarine, another name for margarine. The battle raged not only in Wisconsin but also in other states with strong dairy lobbies. That’s when pink margarine started showing up on grocery store shelves in states like Vermont, New Hampshire and South Dakota. (Can you imagine eating bubblegum pink shortbread cookies?) Each state’s laws against margarine were different, but they were all designed to support local dairy farmers.
What Happened Next?
Yellow margarine was banned in Wisconsin until 1967, the last ban of its kind. The law was overturned only after one state senator (who was particularly anti-oleo) agreed to a blind taste test. He chose margarine over butter and allowed the law to be reversed. It turns out that, for health reasons, his family was secretly serving him margarine smuggled in from another state, which is why he thought it was butter!
Today, Wisconsin still has some margarine laws. Restaurants cannot legally serve margarine unless they also offer butter. Schools and prisons must serve butter to students and inmates, unless a doctor provides a valid health reason. Breaking these laws can bring fines and even jail time, but the laws are almost never enforced anymore.
So, the next time you’re debating what to spread on your morning waffle, think about this hard-fought battle. And if you opt for margarine, just be glad it isn’t pink.