Before this day 146 years ago, no one would have believed that it's not butter. Back then, butter was the only really buttery thing there was — and it was pricey.
That's why Emperor Louis Napoleon III (no, not that Napoleon, but his nephew) of France put out a call for scientists to create a cheaper alternative to butter and offered a sizable sum of money as an incentive. On July 15, 1869, French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès answered that call when the French Ministry of Agriculture and Trade granted him a patent for margarine.
Mège-Mouriès made his margarine from beef tallow, a rendered form of beef fat that is mainly used for making soap and animal feed today. Emperor Napoleon's hope was that this cheaper butter substitute would help the lower classes and military get their fatty fix, but it wasn't until margarine came to the United States that it actually caught on. Within a decade of its introduction in the 1870s, dozens of companies sprung up to produce the stuff.
Margarine's arrival in the States was met with panic from American dairy farmers. Butter was big business for them, and thus began the smear campaign against margarine. According to an article from National Geographic, Sen. Joseph Quarles of Wisconsin — which was and still is known as the Dairy State — played up the fact that margarine was a product of the slaughterhouse rather than the dairy farm, proclaiming, "I want butter that has the natural aroma of life and health. I decline to accept as a substitute caul fat, matured under the chill of death, blended with vegetable oils and flavored by chemical tricks."
Things got even uglier when it came to the issue of margarine's color, so ugly that the issue went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Margarine does not naturally share butter's alluring golden hue. Instead, it is a sterile white color, and margarine manufacturers quickly opted to add yellow dye to make it more appealing — a move that those in the butter industry painted as a ploy to trick the public into believing that it was actually butter.
As of 1902, margarine was being taxed exorbitantly and a whopping 32 states out of the 45 in the Union at the time had passed laws to restrict its coloration. Red, brown and black were among the colors to which margarine in these states was confined, but several specifically mandated that margarine be dyed a putrid pink. The Supreme Court ultimately overturned these "pink laws," but bans on yellow dye for margarine still stood. Until the ban was finally repealed in 1967, yellow margarine could get you fined or even thrown in prison in Wisconsin.
Still, the margarine industry flourished during the Great Depression and World War II as shortages of money and butter, respectively, drove people to embrace the non-dairy butter alternative. It was around this time that margarine producers began to make the stuff out of hydrogenated vegetable oils instead of animal fats. Margarine did surpass butter in popularity for a time, but butter was back in the lead as of 2014, according to National Geographic.
So, whatever happened to the chemist, Monsieur Mège-Mouriès back in France, who started all of this madness? He sold his margarine patent to a Dutch butter-making company called Jurgens, which was later acquired by Unilever, and never made a profit from his revolutionary invention. Meanwhile, Unilever continues to be one of the largest producers of margarine in the world, making the truth about its popular product "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!" all the more unbelievable.
Photo: Veganbaking.net | Flickr