I Can’t Believe It’s Not Oleomargarine

Today’s post was written by Jessica Lee.  She was a summer intern in the Archives 1 Reference Section, working with the Civil records team.

During my internship, I have had the opportunity to work with archivists on different kinds of projects. For one assignment, I entered titles of various public and private laws and resolutions into a database. One particular Congressional act caught my attention, so much so that I had to look at it more closely. It was:

Forty-Ninth Congress, Sess. 1, Chap. 840, approved August 2, 1886: “An act defining butter, also imposing a tax upon and regulating the manufacture, sale, importation, and exportation of oleomargarine.”

Using the printed U.S. Statutes at Large, I read the entire eight pages of the law. In it, the act defined oleomargarine as including “all mixtures and compounds of tallow, beef-fat, suet, lard, lard-oil, vegetable-oil annotto, and other coloring matter…made in imitation or semblance of butter,” whereas butter was defined as being “made exclusively from milk or cream, or both, with or without common salt, and with or without additional coloring matter.”

The law also imposed special oleomargarine taxes: $600 on manufacturers, $480 on wholesale dealers, and $48 on retail dealers. It also decreed that oleomargarine must be “packed by the manufacturer thereof in firkins, tubs, or other wooden packages not before used for that purpose, each containing not less than ten pounds.” Additionally, the manufacturer was also required to affix on each package a label that says “Notice.–The manufacturer of the oleomargarine herein contained has complied with all the requirements of law. Every person is cautioned not to use either this package again or the stamp thereon again, nor to remove the contents of this package without destroying said stamp, under the penalty provided by law in such cases.”  A manufacturer neglecting to do so would incur a $50 fine.

An additional tax on the manufacturer included two cents per pound for “oleomargarine which shall be manufactured and sold, or removed for consumption of use.” Imported margarine did not escape notice as it too was taxed fifteen cents per pound, in addition to any import duties.

The consumer, it seems, was also affected. The law stated that someone who “knowingly purchases or receives for sale any oleomargarine” which has either not been branded or stamped accordingly, or for which the manufacturer has not paid the special tax, could be fined $50 and $100, respectively, for each offense.

Oversight fell to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. The law decreed that “an analytical chemist and a microscopist” would be appointed by the Commissioner to assist in the policing of oleomargarine.

So what happened to the Federal Margarine Act of 1886? According to a post on the NARA’s “Prologue – Pieces of History” blog, it appears that the “federal margarine tax system came to an end in 1951.” It goes on to say that the “dairy state Wisconsin was the last state to repeal the restrictions on the sale, coloration, and/or manufacture of margarine” which happened in 1967.

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