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Historical Highlights

The Oleomargarine Act

July 23, 1886
The Oleomargarine Act Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
A Scottish immigrant and Civil War veteran, David Henderson of Iowa served as Speaker of the House in the 56th and 57th Congresses (1899–1903).
On this date, the 49th Congress (1885–1887) set in motion an era of commercial regulation by passing the Oleomargarine Act which defined the very essence of butter and imposed a two-cent per pound tax on oleomargarine, a butter substitute made from animal fat. The law, which President Grover Cleveland signed 10 days later, came after months of debate over whether the federal government could (or should) regulate private economic activity, as well as the areas of interstate commerce, agriculture, and public health. The debate pitted dairy interests against virtually everyone else, and featured graphic (and often false) descriptions of the processes used to create margarine, which had been invented in France only 17 years before. The vivid imagery came courtesy of Chicago meatpackers, who capitalized on the new product since its manufacture at the time harvested excess animal fat that had earlier gone to waste. Margarine also yielded high-profits but cost very little, making it popular among both industrialists and the millions of consumers who couldn’t afford real butter during a lingering economic recession. Dairy interests, however, saw margarine as a threat and appealed to Congress to regulate it with a prohibitive tax. “If I could have the kind of legislation that I want it would not be a source of revenue, as I would make the tax so high that the operation of the law would utterly destroy the manufacture of all counterfeit butter and cheese as I would destroy the manufacture of counterfeit coin or currency,” Representative William Price of Wisconsin said. Future Speaker David Henderson of Iowa compared margarine to the witches’ brew in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Those in Congress who opposed the tax tried to stop the bill through so-called “killer” amendments. With tongue in cheek, Representative John Adams of New York offered an amendment to tax chicken incubators “in order that the great American hen may be properly protected.” Representative George Tillman of South Carolina was among margarine’s few defenders on the House Floor, and got a good laugh when he said that margarine, “when it is honestly made out of good materials,” was actually better than butter. The Oleomargarine Act, which remained in effect until 1950, foreshadowed later attempts to regulate private economic activity. Less than a year later, the same Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act, which established the Interstate Commerce Commission and regulated railroad rates.

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