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The Surprisingly Interesting History of Margarine

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Corbis

How well do you know your margarine history? Let’s take a look at the origins of the butter substitute, and the dairy lobby's attempts to defeat it.

Where did the name “margarine” originate?

In a chemist’s lab. French scientist Michel Eugene Chevreul discovered a new fatty acid in 1813 that he dubbed acide margarique. Chevreul’s discovery contained lustrous, pearly deposits, so he named it after the Greek word margarites, for “pearly.”

Did Chevreul take his margaric acid and head straight for the toaster?

Not quite. If you enjoy margarine, tip your cap to Emperor Napoleon III.

Napoleon III saw that both his poorer subjects and his navy would benefit from having easy access to a cheap butter substitute, so he offered a prize for anyone who could create an adequate replacement.

Enter French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès. In 1869, Mège-Mouriès perfected and patented a process for churning beef tallow with milk to create an acceptable butter substitute, thereby winning the Emperor’s prize.

So Mège-Mouriès became the first margarine tycoon?

Far from it. Despite Napoleon III’s high hopes for Mège-Mouriès’ product, which the scientist had dubbed “oleomargarine,” the market didn’t really take off. In 1871, Mège-Mouriès showed his process to a Dutch company that improved on his methods and helped build an international market for margarine. The Dutch entrepreneurs realized that if margarine were going to become a substitute for butter, it needed to look like butter, so they began dyeing margarine, which is naturally white, a buttery yellow.

Mège-Mouriès didn’t get a princely sum for his invention; he actually died a pauper in 1880. The Dutch company that improved upon his recipe did pretty well for itself, though. The company, Jurgens, eventually became a world-renowned maker of margarines and soaps and later became a part of Unilever.

How did the dairy world react to margarine’s sudden popularity?

They were predictably more than a little irked. Butter was big business, and the notion that a cheaper substitute, even one made in part with milk, might storm the market terrified dairy farmers. They didn’t take the threat lying down, though, and convinced legislators to tax margarine at a rate of two cents per pound—no small sum in the late 19th century. Dairy farmers also successfully lobbied for restrictions that banned the use of yellow dyes to make margarine look more appetizing. By 1900, artificially colored butter was contraband in 30 U.S. states. Several states took even more extreme measures to turn consumers away from margarine—they required the product to be dyed an unappealing pink color.

Did other countries enact similar restrictions?

If you think taxes and dyes are tough, then the Canadian government’s anti-margarine campaign seems downright draconian. From 1886 until 1948, Canadian law banned any and all margarine. The only exception to this rule came between 1917 and 1923, when World War I and its aftermath left butter in short supply and the government temporarily gave margarine the thumbs up.

Margarine didn’t necessarily have an easier time after the ban was relaxed, either. Quebec’s strong dairy lobby ensured that rules against dyeing remained in place in the province until 2008.

Was there any way around these color restrictions?

Sure. It sounds almost laughable now, but if you wanted to eat margarine on your toast without having to stare at its natural white color, there was a solution. As the coloring restrictions became widespread around the turn of the 20th century, margarine producers accepted that they couldn’t dye their wares yellow. There was no reason why they couldn’t simultaneously sell consumers margarine and yellow dye, though. When you bought a block or tube of margarine, you also got a packet of food coloring that could be kneaded into the margarine by hand.

What helped margarine stay competitive with butter in the face of these restrictions?

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More restrictions, of course. Paradoxically, the pure foods movement of the 1920s helped undermine natural butter and elevate the status of margarine. In 1923 Congress passed a law that made it illegal to add any other ingredients to butter, even additives that would help make the butter more spreadable.

As any toast aficionado knows, margarine is a heck of a lot easier to spread than butter. Suddenly, butter makers couldn’t tweak their products to make it easier to slather on breakfast, but margarine manufacturers could. Margarine’s popularity skyrocketed.

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Margarine also got a bit bump from World War II. When wartime butter scarcity forced consumers to switch to margarine, lots of margarine holdouts realized that the improved product wasn’t so bad after all. In 1950, the U.S. government repealed the heavy margarine tax, and the market continued to grow as individual states reversed their bans on colored margarine. The last state to repeal the ban on dyes? You guessed it: Wisconsin. America’s Dairyland didn’t allow dyed margarine until 1967.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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