Go to your fridge, chances are you have some margarine in it. Maybe not, but at some point in your life you have had margarine.
Margarine has a long history, going back to 1869 in France when it was developed after a challenge from Emperor Napoleon III to create a butter substitute from beef tallow for the armed forces and lower classes.
The name was originally oleomargarine, named for the Latin word oleum, which meant olive oil and the Greek word margarite, which was the word for pearl indicating luster. This was later changed to margarine.
Having an alternative to butter obviously made many diary producers worried. In Wisconsin, a law was passed due to pushing by the diary industry to ban the colouring of margarine, which was typically white. To combat this, margarine companies distributed the product with a packet of yellow food colouring.
In Canada, the resistance to margarine was much higher.
Beginning in 1886, through an Act of Parliament, there was a complete ban on the product, which would continue until 1917. It was at that point that the ban was lifted due to dairy shortages. The ban would come back into place in 1923, and would continue until 1948.
How was Canada able to ban margarine so quickly? It came down to the fact that farmers were a huge voting block at the time and losing their votes would be a disaster for any political party.
Bootleg margarine would hit the market throughout those years, produced typically by the Dominion of Newfoundland, which was not part of Canada. The margarine was produced through whale, seal or fish oil by the Newfoundland Butter Company and would be smuggled into Canada where it was sold for half the price of butter.
Production on margarine had begun in 1883, but it would ramp up with the Newfoundland Butter Company.
The Newfoundland Butter Company had been established in 1925, and while it had butter in the name, the company only produced margarine. It had been established by Sir John Crosbie, the Minister of Fisheries for Newfoundland after he had made a trip to Denmark. At the time, Denmark had a very strong dairy industry, but also a successful margarine industry. As a result, he would found the company with the ironic name. To kick off interest, some of the first tubs of margarine from the company included gold and silver coins.
As soon as the factory for the company opened, the government would impose a six per cent import tax on margarine, which benefited Crosbie, who was using his influence to sell his margarine in public institutions on the island.
The company was committed to creating customer loyalty in Newfoundland. In 1931, a nutritional study found Newfoundland residents were not getting enough vitamin A and D, so the company began adding the ingredients into the product.
The company was bought by Unilever in 1937, a company that had been producing margarine in Europe since 1878.
In 1948, the Supreme Court of Canada lifted the ban on margarine. The dairy farmers of Canada were incredibly angry about this removal of the ban. They actually would cut back on their dairy production in response, causing a milk shortage across the country.
At the same time, Newfoundland was negotiating its entry into the Canada and it had three non-negotiable conditions in doing so. One of those was the constitutional protection for the new province to continue manufacturing margarine.
The negotiations between Newfoundland and Canada would result in Term 46 of the Newfoundland Act.
This term prohibited the sale of margarine to the rest of Canada but allowed the manufacture and sale of it within Newfoundland. Many were not pleased with the fact that Newfoundland could make margarine but not ship it off the island. It would lead Greg Power, a poet in Newfoundland, to write a poem called The Ballad of Oleo Margarine.
I pray that I shall never know
A future without oleo
Or live to see my little sons
Turn up their noses at my buns
But there is one with soil so dead
Who’d sacrifice our spread for bread
And ban from every Newfie table
Our wholesome, rich, improved Green Label.
This condition helped the Newfoundland Butter Company earn a special mention in the Terms of Union with Canada, and it would become the first margarine manufacturing company in Canada. It would also change its name officially to Newfoundland Margarine Company.
With Newfoundland now in Canada and making margarine, margarine producers began to use that as a way to lobby the government to be able to sell it to the rest of the country. The tactic worked and margarine soon became legal.
This did not mean that margarine was on the right track to being sold as it is today. In 1950, a court ruling gave provinces the right to regulate the product and rules were put into place regarding the colour of the margarine. It had to be either bright yellow or orange, or colourless in some provinces. As was seen in Wisconsin, manufacturers of margarine would typically include a yellow dye pack with the margarine. Pressing on the tab would release the yellow dye into the margarine and squishing the sack for 20 minutes would mix the dye completely.
Margarine had to be clearly labelled, couldn’t be sold in any provincial institution and was forbidden from resembling butter in any form, either in shape or colour.
The owners of The Ritz Café in Olds related that when margarine was legalized, a film was shown at the Mayfair Theatre to educate people on margarine.
“It was legal to have coloured margarine, although you still could buy it white. The Mayfair Theatre showed an educational short film on “The Easy Way” to colour margarine.”
Some communities opposed the legalization of margarine as well. Ponteix would file its own opposition to the sale of margarine in 1948.
Margarine would be a new thing for several families in Canada upon its legalization. Peter Jansen of Clearlake, Alberta stated in his recollection, “For school sandwiches we only had syrup sandwiches and margarine, which we had never heard of before. Mom put a little colouring into the white margarine to make it look like butter. For me, it had no taste of butter.”
The arrival of margarine helped many families though. In the story of Herbert, Saskatchewan, it is related that people had been complaining about the high cost of butter and margarine, which had just arrived on the market was selling for 42 cents per pound in Regina. The newspaper related the following, “If the public found they liked the new product margarine, it would prove to be stiff competition for butter and should drive the price down.”
It would not be until the 1980s that these regulations were lifted in some places. That being said, Ontario would not allow butter-coloured margarine until 1995, and Quebec would be the last to repeal its law against butter colouring, which it did in 2008. The process for Quebec to remove its limitations on colouring of margarine was not a quick one. In 1987, the dairy industry persuaded Premier Robert Bourassa to ban coloured margarine. This was done at the time when most provinces had dropped such conditions. It was not long before Unilever challenged the law saying that it violated the North American Free Trade Agreement and the rules of the World Trade Organization. The company claimed it was being forced to make two types of margarine, one coloured and one not, for sale in Canada and that was a hit to the company’s bottom line. In 1997, the company imported 480 containers of yellow margarine that had been made in the United States. Those were then sent to a retail distributor. The government quickly seized 384 containers of the product. Unilever then appealed to the Superior Court to have the seizure reversed. At the same time, it argued the ban on coloured margarine was against the constitution.
In 1999, the court ruled that the law was valid but that it did violate interprovincial trade rules. The ruling was upheld again in 2003.
With the removal of the original ban, it did not take long for Canadians to immediately jump on the margarine band wagon. In 1954, 53,000 tons of margarine was produced. That rose to 129,000 tons by 1986.
Today, margarine is a popular part of the Canadian breakfast table and a world without it is almost unbelievable at this point for most residents of the country.
Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, the Canadian Encyclopedia, the CBC, 604 Now, Ingenium Channel, A History Of Olds and Area, The Clear Vision, Ponteix Yesterday and Today, Bittersweet Years, How Stuff Works,