Almanac: A tax on margarine

And now a page from our "Sunday Morning" Almanac: March 16th, 1950, 64 years ago today . . . a milestone on the road to table spread parity.

For that was the day President Harry Truman signed a bill ending the federal tax on margarine.

oleo-hydra-cartoon.jpg
A farmer battles an evil three-headed Hydra (whose heads are labeled "Glucose," "Cotton-seed Oil Lard" and "Oleomargarine") in this 1890 cartoon by A. Berghaus for The Rural New Yorker.
CBS News

Patented by a French scientist in 1869, margarine was an all-too-cheap alternative for butter . . . and the American dairy industry went all-out to stop it.

In 1886, Congress imposed a two-cent per pound tax on margarine, later raised it to a dime . . . while at one point last century just 26 states allowed the sale of margarine -- colored with a yellow dye that kept it from looking like lard.

However, butter rationing during World War II got millions of people used to eating margarine. And a lobbying campaign eventually led to a repeal of the federal tax.

Margarine makers next turned to television to make their case, with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt of all people among those leading the charge

"Years ago, most people would never dream of eating margarine, but times have changed," Roosevelt said in a 1959 commercial. "Nowadays, you can get a margarine like the new Good Luck, which really tastes delicious. That's what I've spread on my toast. Good Luck. I thoroughly enjoy it."

One-by-one, states dropped their margarine restrictions, with the dairy state of Wisconsin only lifting its total ban in 1967 . . . shamed, perhaps, by Mrs. H.F. Musgrave's news-making drive across the border to Illinois in search for black-market margarine.

"Well, I'm going to to use it to make some cookies," she said.

"You're a criminal then," said a reporter.

"Yeah!" she laughed.

Butter and margarine have been battling it out ever since, with butter sales recently regaining the lead.

Which one you prefer comes down to taste, personal judgment of competing health claims, and -- for those in the business -- a question of just which side your bread is buttered (or "margarined") on.


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