Buttering Our Toast

margarine-butterThe Ancestry Blog has republished an article by Beau Sharbrough that originally appeared years ago in Ancestry Magazine. It describes the invention of margarine and its influence on the lives of our ancestors. I suspect that many readers of this newsletter are unaware of the controversies surrounding margarine, originally called “oliomargarine.”

I particularly enjoyed Beau’s words:

“Making butter wasn’t a simple task. First, someone would have to milk the cow. Then the milk would sit in pans, the wife would skim the cream off the top, and the cream would go into the churn. A good housewife would force her sons to work the churn. When those boys grew into men, they never doubted how much work being a housewife was—from beginning to end, it might take 45 minutes to make butter from cream.”

As a young child living on a family farm, I spent many hours turning the handle on the butter churn, despite my objections to my mother. She stated that it was “my duty.” I never really understood that statement until I read Beau’s article.

If you want to see what affected your ancestors’ every day lives, read Beau Sharbrough’s article, Buttering Our Toast, at https://blogs.ancestry.com/ancestry/2016/12/16/buttering-our-toast/.

And to think I now only eat a vegan substitute for margarine while margarine itself is a substitute for butter…


My grandfather on my mother’s side delivered oleo. It had a separate yellow dye package that you had to mix into the oleo to make it yellow. The oleo was white in color. It cost five cents. The yellow was separate to show that it was not butter. The butter people were afraid that oleo would be confused with butter if sold with yellow in it. No matter if it was butter or oleo, we always called it butter. But both sets of my grandparents always called it oleo. I asked as a kid one day why, and that is how I know that my grandfather sold and delivered it. (I also have his business card showing that he was an oleo seller)

The things you learn as a kid and do not always understand that you are learning history and history of your family.


    I had to mix the yellow dye into the margarine when I was a kid. It was a messy job and I always hated it. My mother thought it was a modern marvel and she ate margarine all her life. I hate margarine and won’t touch it because I remember the onerous job of mixing in that yellow dye.


We had an ice box on the back porch (in northern Illinois) when I was a child. And I remember kneading the heavy plastic bag of oleo to work the yellow dye throughout to “make butter”. I also remember that we used to bring a case of margarine with us when we visited a cousin in northern Wisconsin. My hazy recollection is that the imitation stuff was banned in the dairy state. (On the return trip, we’d bring back a 50-lb bag of potatoes that cost about $2.)


I too remember the little packet of yellow inside the pound package of white oleomargarine. My mother didn’t enjoy the process of squishing that package until it was uniformly yellow–she had more important things to do with her time. But she pretended it was fun so her kids would want to do it–the Tom Sawyer effect. So my brother and I would compete to do it, and see which one could do it fastest.

We also became aware that different states had different laws about when margarine began to come in yellow. We grew up in Washington state, where the western part of the state depended in part on dairy. But we had close friends whose grandparents were dairy farmers in adjacent Oregon. There, dairy was even more critical. So the law that margarine was white with the little yellow pouches lasted a lot longer there, because of a felt need to protect the dairy industry. After Washington allowed yellow margarine, people in Portland going across the Columbia River into Washington, would stock up on yellow margarine to avoid having to squish white margarine into yellow. Unless they had kids who thought it was a kick to do that job.


Marilyn Kay Maynard December 17, 2016 at 8:36 am

My grandmother offered me the privilege of squeezing the container of oleo until that yellow dye packet broke and I had the oleo consistently yellow. I thought it was fun, rather than being the work that it was. We lived on a farm and milked cows, but we turned to oleo rather quickly, probably because it was so much less work.


Sharbrough’s “Buttering Our Toast” is an insight as to how our chores and condiments have changed over four generations. Today my Endocrinologist has me using a product, “Smart Balance Heart Right Light (with stanols),” it doesn’t even use the the term margarine! Who knows what the next generation will think?


    —> Today my Endocrinologist has me using a product, “Smart Balance Heart Right Light (with stanols),” it doesn’t even use the the term margarine!

    I switched to Smart Balance Heart Right Light several years ago, right after my stroke. I find it amusing that it is a margarine substitute which, in turn, is a butter substitute.

    You asked, “Who knows what the next generation will think?” I can offer one suggestion that was almost unheard of 20 or 30 years ago that is now becoming more and more popular for health reasons: switch to a vegan diet.

    I did that nearly 4 years ago and it resulted in an almost immediate improvement in my health. I don’t want to switch back! I suspect the change to vegan diets will be slow but will continue for a long, long time, especially amongst diabetics.

    Here’s a suggestion: talk to your endocrinologist about a vegan diet.


I flatly refuse to eat margarine; it’s one molecule away from being plastic. In a kid’s term: it’s icky! I first encountered oleo at an aunt & uncle’s home in Wisconsin as a kid. I viewed it with skepticism then, and now that I know what’s in it…, bleargh!
My cholesterol is fine, and the good cholesterol number is excellent. My doctor just looks at that and doesn’t know what to think since I also won’t take cholesterol pills, but he seems to be bewildered that I don’t have high cholesterol.
I was raised on a farm; my parents had sheep when I was too young to remember them (altho I have a photo of me with a lamb and my faithful protective dog next to me when I was perhaps a bit over a year old; I was walking, at any rate), and not long after my parents switched to being a grain farm only, no animals. My eldest maternal uncle had a Grade A Dairy farm with Holstein cows. For a while when I was an older child, we had a golden Guernsey cow for a while. From her milk Mom made melkegrøt (aka milk mush or milk porridge) which is whole milk fresh from the cow, a bit of salt, bring it to a simmer, add flour until it’s a thick paste consistency – you can use an electric mixer for the process of adding flour since the flour needs to be added slowly – serve in a shallow dish/bowl, top it with butter – preferably fresh butter the kids just shook in a gallon jug to make butter and buttermilk – sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on the top, work from the edges inward because the mixture is hot. It doesn’t sound like much, but trust me, it’s delicious! If anyone else was raised in a Scandinavian household, they know what this is. [No, you can’t make this with pasteurized milk; as my mother said, it tastes awful made from store-bought pasteurized milk. It has to be made with fresh milk straight from the cow.]
Yes, my brother and I did take turns shaking cream into butter and buttermilk when we were kids. At a certain consistency Mom removed the butter, mixed in a little salt, and we had fresh butter for our pancakes or melkegrøt. There are no pancakes more delicious than fresh buttermilk pancakes – my mother’s recipe only since it can be thinned to a crepe consistency and they have more flavor than any other pancakes I’ve ever eaten, and as long as any extras are covered overnight, the following morning they can be buttered, sugar or jelly or whatever added, rolled up, and eaten. I have Mom’s recipe! Mom once tried the boxed pancake mix and us kids told her it tasted like wallpaper paste. We never had it again! Dad also liked a fresh glass of buttermilk with a sprinkle of salt on top.
There really is nothing quite like fresh veggies from the garden (pesticide free! – and this was in the days before plant genetics were fiddled with in corporate laboratories), fresh milk, buttermilk, butter. When the first smallish veggies were large enough, Mom made a pork or beef stew of the tender fresh vegetables from the garden. When full fall arrived, there was fresh homemade bean soup made from ham hock stock & Navy beans and more veggies from our annual garden. Yummy!
Oleo? Wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole! 😀


When I was growing up, our family owner a farm in Iowa. My great aunt managed it. One day she was grousing about margarine and the poor dairy farmer. My dad said, “What do you think margarine is made from, Mabell?” She snapped, “Oh some chemicals or something”. Dad answered, “It’s made from soybeans Mabell”. Soybeans were our main cash crop – our family ate margarine.


My endocrinologist husband has us use Smart Balance for health reasons. Now it is diary free (no whey) so we can also use it when we have meat and uphold the Jewish meat and dairy separation. Thank heavens: I can have ‘butter’ on my corn on the cob when we have chicken.


For an interesting genealogical take on the oleo story, see Tammy Hepps’ presentation, “Margarine Moonshiners from Minsk” (http://tammyhepps.com/storytelling/)


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