"In purchasing butterine, we are purchasing we know not what" :  the butterine controversy

A sure thing adKansas City newspapers regularly carried ads for “butterine,” a byproduct of the meatpacking process that was marketed by Armour, Swift and many other companies as a cheaper alternative to butter. The ads typically said nothing about the actual composition of the product, the suffix “–ine” suggesting that it was somehow derived from or related to creamery butter.

An Armour ad  invoked “science” to suggest that creamery buttery and its trademark “Silver Churn” butterine were chemically identical, since sulphuric acid added to both were said to have produced the same chemical effects. Therefore, the ad concludes, “Butterine contains the true Butter principles….”

Craving adAnother ad from the “Armour Butterine Company” – a name chosen to avoid association with the Armour slaughtering and meatpacking operation -- combined a quasi-scientific claim with an economic one: the human system, it said, “naturally craves fat,” but butter is expensive while “Silver Churn Butterine is better than creamery butter and costs less.” 

Butterine was a controversial subject which tended to divide industrial from agricultural states. Typical of the views of the latter is the attack of a Wisconsin dairyman on Butterine as a “fraudulent imitation of butter” which was increasingly being foisted on people by retailers as pure butter:

“Nine-tenths of the oleomargarine retailed the country over,” the writer claimed, “goes to the consumer as pure butter.” The writer’s solution was that butterine should not be colored, since its natural color was white, although he admitted that creamery butter was also artificially colored, but only, he said, with dubious logic, to make “the natural, uniform June appearance, which is a standard butter color.” Wisconsin would hold out against the artificial coloring of butterine (or margarine) until the 1960s. 

New Hampshire, another dairy state, required pink color to be added to butterine but the law was struck down in court as was an Illinois law banning the sale and manufacture of butterine which resulted in the arrest of 48 people in 1898 for violating the law. [Aurora IL Daily Express, April 11, 1898, p. 1]  

Butterine award Worlds Fair 1893

The argument that butterine was a healthful product seemed supported by an award that Swift’s butterine received at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago for “good taste, appearance, and color.”  Soon after, the Kansas City Times ran two fervently pro-Butterine editorials on the same day, reflective of the paper’s unstinting support of local industries.  In one, the paper refers to butterine as “machine-made butter,” and “artificial butter” which has been successful because the price of creamery butter remains beyond “the poor man’s purse.” 

Yet, commented the paper, “Prejudice keeps many people,” presumably people of means, “from using butterine, while the latter is a boon to thousands of poor families who otherwise would go without either, or use an injurious substitute. Scientific analysis proves butterine harmless, and those who have used it add to this testimonial by pronouncing it good. Butterine not only does not compete with the farmer’s dairy staple, but on the contrary does the market good by driving out the spurious and harmful imitations that once made the housewife suspicious of good and bad alike…. Kansas City butterine is one of those things for which the world had previously sighed in vain,” but has since developed a considerable home and export market.  

A second editorial said that Kansas City  butterine “has the reputation of being the best in the West,” and that “Scientists have tested it time and again without discovering any deleterious substance in its composition.  The manufacturers make no secret about the ingredients of their product. They say it consists of olio oil, made of choice beef fats; neutral, or leaf lard, taken from prime hogs; cream, milk and a little harmless coloring matter.”

Kingan's ButterineIn fact, the presence and proportions of rendered beef and hog fat were never mentioned in advertisements for the product. Instead, butterine was represented, in the same editorial, as only a different form of creamery butter, “so nearly similar to genuine butter that none but experts are able to detect the difference.” An ad for Kingan’s butterine depicts a prosperous-looking white man commenting to an African American waiter on the “Mighty good butter” he is served; not being an expert he is unable to detect that it is “Kingan’s Butterine, suh.”

People had good reasons for suspicions about butterine. In an 1882 report, James Christie, medical officer of health for Glasgow, pointed out that the term “butterine” (like “margarine” and “oleomargarine”) was  wholly made-up, an invitation to adulteration and counterfeits, “the chief seat of whose manufacture is Chicago and the west generally. In Chicago, a substance is compounded of equal parts of lard and of ‘Western dairy butter,’ colored to resemble butter and known in the trade as ‘Suene,’ the cost price of which is much below that of butterine, for which, therefore, it can be very profitably, though fraudulently, substituted.”

With butter itself being mixed with butterine and represented as real butter, or butterine being adulterated with other ingredients, butter, “as an article of trade, is wholly demoralized," wrote Mr. Christie, "and … if the article is not composed of butter fat, it may be composed of anything…. in purchasing butterine, we are purchasing we know not what. It is a substance which, as an article of commerce,  no one can guarantee either as to its origin, composition, or wholesomeness.”

Kansas City’s newspapers were little concerned with sectional and even international controversy over the production process, purity, or components of butterine. Their view can be summed up by the title of a Times editorial: “Millions in Butterine.”

June 6,  2013