The Butter vs. Oleo Battles

Do you remember anything about the butter vs. oleo “battles” in Wisconsin? Do you recall any episodes on this subject in your own home as you were growing up?

Wisconsin’s license plates still have the words, “America’s Dairyland,” and they are not taken lightly. All those cheeseheads worn at Packer games and other sporting events proclaim a long and proud history that goes back to the late 1800s. After wheat had depleted much of the state’s soils, Wisconsin needed a different farm product. Along with other dairying advocates, W. D. Hoard came with “the gospel according to the cow.”

Obstacles had to be overcome. In the late 1800s, cheese quality in Wisconsin was so bad that out-of-state markets wouldn’t accept it because it sometimes contain lard as a filler. Laws eventually were passed and farmers were convinced that their livelihood depended on a quality product. A host of developments in the late 1800s and early 1900s (the Babcock butterfat test, de Laval cream separaters, etc) set Wisconsin on a path to being “America’s Dariyland.” Today it is still #1 in cheese production.

Ah, but butter… At first butter was first a home product with variable quality; then creameries took over and the quality improved. Butter sales became critical to the success of Wisconsin’s dairy farmers, including Emil Borreson and several of his sons.

The enemy was oleo. This was developed in Paris in 1867 for the military and poor classes of people, and after its 1873 patent in the USA, it became a threat to butter. Through the efforts of the Wisconsin Dairyman’s Association and other dairy interests, Wisconsin outlawed it – and it remained outlawed until 1967.

That was the year 26-year-old Martin Schreiber (later, governor) proposed doing away with the ban. The proposal remained bottled up until he creatively proposed a blind taste test. “One of butters most ardent supporters, Republican Sen. Gordon Roseleip, happily took the taste test and promptly chose margarine as better tasting. His flub made national news.” (La Crosse Tribune, Sept. 20, 2011) And oleo margarine was soon on Wisconsin tables.

I remember how my own father despised oleomargarine, referring to it as “lard” (and perhaps other less attractive names). Even after it became legal for purchase in the state, Dad would have nothing to do with it. Nothing equalled butter! In fact, he would insist that if we spread butter on one slice of bread and butter-colored oleomargarine on another, and asked him to guess, he would always be able to tell the difference. He could see how they spread, he said; he wouldn’t even have to taste them. And this was after some pretty good margarines were being produced. (I think Mom did use them for some kinds of cooking – but very discreetly around Dad!)

A few days ago Mary and I were sharing a toasted bagel at Panera. I was spreading butter on one half and margarine on the other when I recalled Dad’s insistence and I thought, “By golly, he was right! They do spread differently – and I prefer the butter’s taste!” Dad would be proud of me (or wondering if I was slow to get the point).

My wife, who grew up closer to Illinois, remembers trips over the state line to purchase this un-named product – and squeezing out the coloring from a small packet and mixing it into the oleo, so it would look like the real thing. (Note: real thing = butter.)

Actually, Wisconsin still has a law on the books making it illegal for restaurants to serve margarine as a replacement for butter. But they get around the law by serving both butter and margarine! Some folks are wanting to get rid of that law – Imagine that!!

Do you remember the butter-oleo controversy in your own home?

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2 Responses to The Butter vs. Oleo Battles

  1. Kathy Lowe says:

    I have been researching my ancestry and I have found that my great, great grandmother was Anna Borreson Sveum (b 1872 in Wisconsin). Her father was Hans Borreson (b 1830 in Biri, Norway). And I also found that Hans was a farmer in Whitehall, WI. Part of the farm later became Sveum Stock Farm when my great, great grandfather Christian Sveum married Anna. Are you any relation to Anna?

  2. A good question, Kathy, but I think Hans Borreson is a different family. My grandfather Emil Borreson was born in Onalaska, WI to Elias and Kari Borreson who came from Loten and Tynset, Norway, respectively. We have ancestors in Biri on our grandmother’s side of the family (Estenson and Thorson names). Thanks for inquiring. I did take a quick look at the online parish register from Biri and there is indeed a Hans Borreson born July 8, 1830 and baptized July 18. This must be your great-grandfather. – Glenn

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