The Great Butter Battle: Regulation of the Manufacture and Sale of Oleomargarine

Federal Marshals and IRS agents raid the basement of a store in Bridgeport.  The items they suspected were in the basement were guarded by a ferocious bulldog, which the wife of the proprietor would not remove until an IRS agent threatened to shoot it.  The federal officials found 240 pounds of the banned substance.


Hidden in the cellar of an undertaker, behind a pile of caskets, state officials found 3,600 pounds, ready for illegal sale.


The ringleader of a group flooding Connecticut with the illegal product, smuggled in from a neighboring state, was arrested.  Police hoped it would be a deterrent to others contemplating such a scheme.


What was this dangerous item, sought by US Marshals and guarded by fierce dogs?  Drugs, liquor, firearms? No, it was margarine.


Oleomargarine, which was invented by a French chemist as a butter substitute, came on the market in the late 1800s.  As it was significantly cheaper than butter, it represented a threat to butter producers.  Further, it was so close to butter that adulteration and fraud in the sale of real butter became common.



The first law concerning oleo in Connecticut went into effect in 1886, and required that that grocers, boarding houses, restaurants, and hotels that sold anything other than pure dairy butter keep a large, prominently displayed placard in their store informing customers that “oleomargarine is sold here.” A dairy commissioner was appointed to enforce the law.


The dairy commissioner took the enforcement of the oleo law seriously, apparently with good reason.  In his first annual report to the governor, the Commissioner stated that the Agricultural Experiment Station tested 61 samples of so-called butter, and found that 45 of the samples were adulterated. Subsequent annual reports provide a detailed list of the many prosecutions under the law, as well as a list of samples from businesses purporting to sell butter and whether the samples were adulterated or pure (most were adulterated).


The regulation of oleo was not only a state concern. The federal government regulated the manufacture and sale of oleo through taxation, signage and packaging rules, regulations against false and misleading advertising, and even through patent law. The New Haven Register reported an incident where a US Marshal seized a New Haven grocery store after finding that it had the facilities for producing oleo by a process that was protected by a patent. 


In the middle of the 20th century, regulation of oleo began to slowly loosen.  In 1949, Connecticut lifted licensing fees on oleo and permitted its use in state facilities. The color of oleo remained a thorny issue, however.  Oleo was sold uncolored, and the consumer could add color prior to consumption; the selling of yellow oleo was not permitted.


In 1949, the Connecticut Senate voted to remove coloring restrictions, but the House voted to maintain the ban on selling colored oleo.  This vote exemplifies the demographics of the chambers of the General Assembly, as the House, with its large farm representation, sided with milk producers. Meanwhile, Senator Garrett Burkitt, Sr. of Ansonia was in favor of lifting the color ban and stated: “All that propaganda against the bill is just so much poppycock of the milk monopoly.”


There was also a legislative proposal in 1949 that would allow the sale of colored oleo, but the color would be a different shade of yellow, so that there would be no mistaking it for butter.  The governor at the time, Chester Bowles, objected to this scheme, calling the proposed color a ‘carroty orange’ that the consumer ‘does not want and should not be forced to take.’ The color debate was resolved in 1951, when Governor Lodge signed a bill allowing for the sale of colored margarine.


Later in the 1950s, the signage laws were repealed, although restaurants that served oleo had to either label it individually or cut it into a triangle to distinguish it from square-shaped butter. In 1952, a Hartford restaurant proprietor was actually arrested for serving margarine in square pats.


Although current debate about margarine is more about health and less about fraud or the dairy industry, Connecticut’s laws about it have been largely unchanged since the 1950s.  Restaurants are still required under General Statute § 21a-17 to provide notice through signage, individual labeling, or a triangular shape that they are serving margarine, and not butter. 



Oleomargarine and Its Kind, Hartford Courant, Feb. 9, 1883, p. 2.

The Oleomargarine Bill: The President Approves It and Gives His Reasons at Length, Hartford Courant, Aug. 3, 1886, p. 3.

Seizure of Oleomargarine: A Bridgeport Butter Man’s Stock Guarded by a Bulldog, Hartford Courant, Apr. 17, 1891, p. 1.

Oleomargarine Ring’s Alleged Leader is Held: Arrested in New Bedford For Butter Hoax Worked Here, Hartford Courant, Mar. 12, 1934, p. 1.

Frederic P. Storke, Oleomargarine and the Law, 18 Rocky Mnt. L. Rev. 79 (1946)

Bowles Calls for Defeat of ‘Orange Oleo’ Hartford Courant, Apr. 11, 1949, p. 1

Connecticut Votes Oleo Licensing End, New York Times, Apr. 15, 1949, p. 32

House To Get ‘Oleo Yellow’ Paper Slips: Milk Producers Want To Show Members Hue is Not ‘Carrotty Orange,’ Hartford Courant, Apr. 12, 1949, p. 1.

Lodge Signs Bill Making Sale of Colored Oleo Legal, Hartford Courant, Mar. 10, 1951, p. 5.

Square Oleo Pats Draw Law’s Arm, Hartford Courant, Apr. 9, 1952, p. 21.

Grocers May Remove Oleo Signs, State Says, Hartford Courant, Oct. 9, 1953, p. 8.

“Oleo” and Caskets: Singular “Find” in and Undertakers Cellar, Hartford Courant, June 2, 1990, p. 5

Reports of the Dairy Commissioner


Image [cc] J E Theriot via Flickr