Oleomargarine: rituals and litany

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In the previous post ("Oil: a partial paradigm" [6/19/22)]), we have been discussing the origins and ramifications of the derivation of the word "oil" from the ancient Greek word for olive.  The last comment (before I wrote this post), by Coby, states:  "Spanish also has the word óleo, which can mean either oil paint or the oil used in church rituals."  Reading Coby's reference to óleo immediately sparked fond childhood memories of the Mair family ritual of mixing margarine.

We were a large and not well off family, so we seldom could afford real butter.  Consequently, we used oleomargarine to spread on our bread rather than butter.  We referred to it as "oleo" instead of "margarine", since the latter seemed too fancy-fussy in our household, and "oleomargarine" would have taken too much time to pronounce and would have been considered archly pedantic among us rural Ohio folk.

Every week or so, my father would bring home from the grocery store a pliable, durable packet of what looked like and had the consistency of pure white lard.  Tactilely, it was great fun to squish around inside the thick plastic bag.

On the inside of the bag was a small bubble full of dark red liquid.  All the kids would wrangle over who got to be the one to break the button-bubble.  It was designed in such a way that you could break the button-bubble without in any way destroying the integrity of the tough, clear plastic bag.  Everyone wanted to be first to break the bubble.  After many bouts of wrangling week after week, we finally worked out a rational, equitable method whereby the bubble bursting privilege rotated among all the siblings.

All right!  One of us would burst the bubble and begin to work the red coloring into the white, lardish substance.  Mirabile dictu!  The more you kneaded the bag, the more the dark red coloring spread through the white "lard" and started to turn reddish yellow.  After about five minutes of kneading, your fingers would tire, and you passed the bag on to the next sibling.  After three or four of us had taken our turn and our fingers could endure it no longer, the whole bag full of "lard" looked like — guess what? — yellow butter!

Why did we have to go through this arcane ritual?  The explanation I always received from people who thought they knew the reason was that the dairy industry didn't want packaged yellow margarine to look like the real thing on the shelf because it would compete with and undercut genuine, and much more expensive, butter.

I think this practice lasted through the mid-fifties, but probably by the sixties, whatever laws governing the sale of colored margarine had been repealed, so that we no longer had to mix in the color by hand.

At this point in the preparation of this blog, I looked at the Wikipedia article on margarine to begin to write on the linguistics of this spread.  Glancing through the contents, I saw that there was a "Color debate", so I went down there and what I read confirmed that my memory was correct.  But the WP account also reminded me that, before we had those neat plastic bags to play with, we mixed the food coloring into the "lard" in a bowl.  That was a real mess, inefficient and ineffective, and no fun at all.

Now on to the nature and language of oleomargarine:

Margarine (/ˈmɑːrərn/, also UK: /ˈmɑːrɡə-, ˌmɑːrɡəˈrn, ˌmɑːrə-/, US: /ˈmɑːrərɪn/ is a spread used for flavoring, baking and cooking. It is most often used as a substitute for butter. Although originally made from animal fats, most margarine consumed today is made from vegetable oil. The foodstuff was originally named oleomargarine from Latin for oleum (olive oil) and Greek margarite (pearl indicating luster). The name was later shortened to margarine.

Margarine consists of a water-in-fat emulsion, with tiny droplets of water dispersed uniformly throughout a fat phase in a stable solid form. While butter is made from the butterfat of milk, modern margarine is made through a more intensive processing of refined vegetable oil and water. In some US jurisdictions, margarine must have a minimum fat content of 80 percent (with a maximum of 16% water) to be labeled as such.

In the United States, the term "margarine" is used to describe "non-dairy spreads" with varying fat contents, and in some places in the United States, it is colloquially referred to as oleo, short for oleomargarine. In Britain and Australia, it can be referred to colloquially as marge.


I must say that I become quite confused even today when trying to choose among butter (various types), margarine, and combinations thereof.  Going back to the post on "oil", oleo stands on the plant side of the plant-animal divide in spreads and butter on the animal side.  Now the entire panoply of dairy products is breaking down under the assault of "milk" made from plant-derived laiches.  Ditto for animal-derived meats and plant-derived "better than beef" type fleisch.  It seems to me that the proportion of space devoted to plant-derived products is gradually displacing that devoted to animal-derived foods.


Selected readings



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 5:11 am

    (Oleo)margerine was certainly in existence during my youth, and I am reasonably certain that my family, being anything but well-off, would have used it. But of late I have not noticed any on supermarket shelves (tho' it may well still be there), being seemingly replaced by products such as Utterly Butterly and similar blends of butter and oil. But it was always my impression that, in the UK at least, if a product was labelled as "butter" then it had to be butter. But this would no longer seem to be the case. A well-known German budget supermarket chain sells a product labelled "Deluxe spreadable West Country butter with Cornish Sea Salt", yet it is not butter at all — it is a blend of 64% butter, 26% rapeseed oil, water (presumably almost 10%, tho' not stated as such) and 0.5% Cornish sea salt + salt. I have complained to the trading standards authority about this blatant mis-labelling, and received not even the courtesy of an acknowledgement — they seem completely unconcerned about this "passing off", even though I am convinced that such activity constitutes a tort under UK law.

  2. Kate Bunting said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 5:20 am

    Interesting – all the online references to this practice seem to be American. I'm British, born 1951 and have never heard of margarine being sold uncoloured.

  3. Kate Bunting said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 5:29 am

    Philip – Traditional solid margarine seems to be sold under names like 'baking block' nowadays, as people prefer the soft kinds ('sunflower spread' or 'olive spread') for putting on bread or toast.

  4. Kristian said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 5:35 am

    In the EU in a product labelled a "butter" something, all the fat has to be from actual butter. In Finland there used to be something called Voimariini (voi = butter + "riini" as in "margariini" margarine) that was butter mixed with vegetable oil (to soften it) and they changed the name to "oivariini" ("oiva" means clever). This obscures the fact that it is mostly butter, though, so some people probably think it is healthier than it is.

    So apparently your Deluxe West Country butter is one of your Brexit privileges.

    I believe margarines are a chemically diverse set of products made by a variety of methods; they used to contain a large percentage of trans fats but nowadays they are supposed to be healthier.

  5. Dick Margulis said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 5:53 am

    My understanding, back in the 1950s, was that those poor souls who lived in Wisconsin still had to do the mixing you write about, thanks to the strong dairy lobby in that state, but by then the rest of us were seeing ads for Parkay and other brands of colored margarine on our local stations. Presumably the red coloring was anatto, a vegetable dye on the GRAS list.

    Regarding the "margarine" part of the word, this comes up fairly frequently for me when people ask me about the origin of my name. As I understand it, the root is Old Persian and means pearl. Hence your Greek margarite. A marguerite is a pearlflower. Margaret, Margery, and similar names all translate to pearl. And oleomargarine is pearly (or pearled) oil.

    But the root word was apparently "borrowed" (linguistic euphemism for rape and pillage, I suppose) into Greek and Hebrew (or maybe Aramaic) during the reign of Alexander. And thus when you run across someone with a surname of Margulis, Margolis, Margulies, etc., it's a tossup as to whether they're of Jewish or Greek extraction. And many people with the surname Pearl have that as the result of a modern-day translation.

    I'm not a historical linguist or an etymologist, so I may have some details wrong, but I think I've got the gist of it right.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 6:18 am

    @Dick Margulis

    I long ago wondered about the origin and meaning of your surname and whether it had anything to do with all those other "marg" words. Thanks for telling us how it does.

  7. Cindy said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 7:10 am

    My mother-in-law tells stories of mixing the color into the margarine as a child in Maine during WW2.
    I'm curious how margarine came to be pronounced with a soft g before the letter a. Always bugged me….

  8. Victor Mair said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 7:35 am

    Nick Tursi went online and found a number of nice Delrich “E-Z Color Pak” margarine ads. It seems the ads were split between taglines reading “ends mixing bowl mess!” Or “Just knead the bag!"

    See here and here.

  9. Rosane Rocher said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 9:00 am

    I don’t know of margarine (no other word for it) ever involving coloring in Belgium. It came in paper bricks than butter. I remember my mother, who had grown up on a farm, introducing margarine defensively, as a vegetal product that was supposed to be healthier than butter. But it clearly had the aura of the ersatz products that had appeared in occupied Belgium. (We had no French substitute for the word “ersatz,” which we pronounced in as sneering German as we could produce). In our two-white-collar-income-one-kid household, it became used for everyday cooking and baking, but not as a spread. My mother henceforth took to calling butter “du vrai beurre” or “du bon beurre."

  10. Andreas Johansson said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 9:14 am

    Growing up, we didn't spread either butter nor margarine on our bread, this being about the only practical result of a long-ago attempt by my parents to lose weight. All my siblings eventually picked up the habit as teens or adults, but I haven't, despite the best attempts of my wife to induce me to.

    It's not that I have any principled or health-related objection to doing it, it's just that I want sandwiches to taste like I'm used to.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 9:25 am

    Well, I am half-way towards your position, Andreas, in that I want no butter on (e.g.,) a bacon or roast beef sandwich, but I discovered rather late in life that a sausage sandwich is improved by a factor of around 1000% by the use of butter. Which I also use, b.t.w., in sandwiches such as boiled egg and smoked anchovies, but not on (e.g.,) a smoked salmon sandwich, with or without cream cheese.

  12. Coby said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 10:34 am

    I am familiar with American English "oleo" being used for margarine from crossword puzzles; I've never actually heard it used.

    My familiarity with margarine comes from being raised in a Jewish family (in Europe, then California) that observed kashrut, which meant that margarine (being parve) could be used in sandwiches containing meat.

    And, like Cindy above, I've always wondered how the "soft g" pronunciation came about.

  13. Daniel C. Waugh said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 11:10 am

    Born in 1941, I remember the plastic packets with oleo (and, to the puzzlement of some, still used that term for it long after those packets were replaced by the already colored stuff). I am quite sure there was an issue where the dairy industry blocked selling oleo if it looked like butter. I can't remember that my sister and I had to negotiate who got to manipulate the packet to spread the color (maybe we did not care). In terms of using the stuff, I don't think any of us liked the taste, compared to that of butter. So I don't recall exactly what ways it was used in the family kitchen. We don't have any oleo (or margarine with the "soft g" in the house now and use butter only sparingly. I have never quite understood why people butter toast first if they are going to spread jam on it. The jam is quite enough, especially if homemade….
    My history also goes back to the day before homogenized milk. The milkman would deliver to the door glass bottles from the local dairy. The milk had lots of butter fat in it, which floated to the top and often formed a layer so think it occupied the whole neck of the bottle and had to be spooned out. Ah, nostalgia…..

  14. Alexander Browne said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 11:13 am

    The OED includes this note:

    N.E.D. (1905) gives as the pronunciation only (mā·ɹgărīn), with /-ɡ-/; this pronunciation, which became rare in the second half of the 20th cent., probably underlies the nickname Maggie Ann. N.E.D. (1902), however, s.v. Oleomargarine, notes that the latter is ‘Often mispronounced (-mā·ɹdʒərīn), as if spelt -margerine ’ (i.e. with /-dʒ-/). The latter pronunciation is recorded in 1913 (with subordinate status) by H. Michaelis & D. Jones Phonetic Dict. Eng. Lang.; the shortened form marge , in which -ge also implies pronunciation with /-dʒ-/, is attested within ten years of this. The shift of stress, outside North American English, from the first to the final syllable is also first evidenced in the 1913 source.

  15. Keith said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 11:18 am

    When I was in my teens there were big campaigns in the UK on the dangers of eating butter, many aimed at men who would supposedly all die of heart attack if they didn't *immediately* switch to hydrogenated polyunsaturated vegetable oil.

    @Rosane, here in France the word "succédané" is often used for Ersatz. And I noticed that the list of ingredients on a packet of stroopwafels the term "roomboter"… The word "room" means cream, so I was a bit puzzled as to why there needed to be this emphasis on the butter being truly made from cream, but apparently (i.e. I read in Wikipedia) the Dutch word for a spread such as margarine is "kunstboter", meaning "artificial butter"… Curiously, peanut butter is called "pindakaas", which literally is "peanut cheese".

  16. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 12:16 pm

    Google Books has a report of the NY State Agricultural Society from 1856 in which "margerine" (with an e) is used to refer to fatty compounds of what was then called margaric acid (now known to be a blend of stearic and palmitic acids). This was 13 years prior to the 1869 invention in France of the food product called margarine. So perhaps this preexisting term of art in US food science influenced the pronunciation of "margarine" when it arrived on this side of the pond.

  17. Elizabeth Barber said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 12:55 pm

    We said it with a soft G and used it in the 1940s–I associate it with food rationing and scarcity during and just after the war. But our red coloring–as I remember–was in powder form in a packet, and Mama had to mix it in a big bowl. I loved to watch the streaks turn orange, then the whole mass slowly became yellow. (I also recall pouring the cream off the top "bulb" of the milk bottle by holding a special spoon at the bottom of the "bulb" to hold the plain milk back…)

  18. DMcCunney said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 1:01 pm

    I recall margarine from my childhood in Philadelphia. My not at all affluent family used it for cost reasons. (I do not recall the brand.) But butter was present for cooking. Margarine was not a substitute in various things where the recipe called for butter.

    The stuff we got was already colored, and was packaged in sticks like butter. I recall hearing about dairy industry efforts to curb margarine in major dairy producing states like Wisconsin.

    We called it margarine, not oleo. And alongside butter, we had things like Kraft Miracle Whip, which were vegetable based substitutes for dairy based mayonnaise.

    I'm not sure when my tastes changed, but these days I want butter and mayonnaise, and can't stand the substitutes.

    I'm a bit grimly amused. There's an ice cream parlor down the block from me that offers vegan ice cream. made from an oat based milk substitute, and kiosk ads for an oat based milk substitute. I'm not clear how much of the appeal is objection ot animal based products how much is perceived health benefits, and how much is climate change related, as methane is a climate change issue, and cows produce large amounts of methane.(What I've been able to discover indicates dairy farming is a minor contributor to atmospheric methane,but this is an emotional issue untainted by actual facts.)

    Meanwhile, the dairy industry has problems. For an assortment of reasons, milk consumption has been declining. The largest US milk producer declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy a while back, and smaller dairy farmers are an endangered species. It's economics 101. In any industry, costs rise, consolidation occurs, and you have to be big to survive.

  19. Rosie Redfield said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 1:28 pm

    In 1950's British Columbia our margarine was yellow; we had real butter only on special occasions. But when we visited our Saskatchewan cousins we discovered that their margarine started out white, with a separate packet of colour, that could be mixed in. No clever plastic bags, just blocks wrapped in waxed paper.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 2:49 pm

    From John Lagerwey:

    The inventor of the process you describe for turning oleo (we also so called it) into “butter” was a man named Leo Peters, who went to our church in Grand Rapids. He became fabulously rich from his invention.

  21. SlideSF said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 2:53 pm

    I grew up in Wisconsin in the 50s and 60s, and yes, there was a lobby by the dairy industry to make the coloring of margarine unlawful. I never saw the packets with a separate coloring agent, as we never bought it. Instead, my grandmother, who lived in Chicago, would fill a suitcase with "oleo" before every visit, and smuggle it across the state border. We would store it in the freezer for future use. The illicit nature of the enterprise always appealed to the oldest of us kids.

    Being true Wisconsinites, we wouldn't dream of putting it on bread, but my mother used it in baking to economize, because "it tastes the same", a fact that was demonstrably untrue. Later, after my father's first heart attack, and after the liberation of colored margarine by the state government (with much fanfare by the likes of Parkay, Blue Bonnet, Imperial, etc.), we continued to use margarine for "health" reasons (another example of a fact which proved to be untrue).

    And we always called it oleo. "margarine" was thought to be a fancy word made up by the advertising world to make it sound somehow better,

  22. Philip Zaleski said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 7:08 pm

    When I was an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, the first generation in my family to attend college, I was so dazzled by the world of learning that I soon came to the quixotic conviction (which I'm still inclined to hold) that every book in the library, if approached with an open mind, is worth reading. To prove it, I spent an evening in my first freshman semester searching the stacks for the dullest sounding book I could find, and I came up with the immortal 1930 classic, Margarine as a Butter Substitute, published by the Food Research Institute in their Fats and Oils Series (1930).

    I still remember the thrill of opening the book and discovering that this unpromising title (to my eyes, anyway) contained all sorts of remarkable information, not least vivid descriptions of the repellent color of margarine before the magic color additive turned it a fetching yellow. The book contained many other surprises as well, too many to list.

    To confirm my experience, a few years ago — 50 years after my initial encounter — I sought out this great book again, via ILL, and lo and behold, when I started to reread it I found that its power was undiminished. Anyone interested in it now will need to know, for their own ILL request, that the author was one Katharine Snodgrass, who also published books on copra, coconut oil, and wool. If approached with an open mind, I'm sure that these volumes too will prove to be gripping reads.

  23. Calvin said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 7:57 pm

    Here is a very good chronology on oleomargarine, through the history of Jelke family and its "Good Luck" oleomargarine brand.

    Side note: The "Oleo Heir" is Michael J. Brody Jr., who made headlines in 1970 by announcing he would be giving away his $25 million fortune to the poor and " to cure the problems of the world". That didn't happen and he killed himself few years later. He's the subject of the documentary "Dear Mr. Brody".

  24. Lisa RR said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 8:34 pm

    Canada also has a very strong dairy industry lobby.
    The province of Quebec banned margarine until 1961, and only allowed margarine to be coloured in 2008! Apparently the law was actually enforced and coloured margarine products were removed from store shelves. Quebec was the last province to drop the colouring ban.
    Ontario repealed its Margarine Act in 1995, allowing coloured margarine.
    Some provinces required margarine to be very bright yellow – again to be different than butter.
    I found this in a CBC article from 2008 – which discusses mixing in the dye.

  25. Brett said,

    June 21, 2022 @ 11:23 pm

    My mother says that they mixed the reddish pigment into white margarine when she was a child, living in Brooklyn and then Connecticut in the 1950s, probably stopping some time in the early 1960s. Her family was reasonably well off, although her parents (who came from Canada) had grown up under more more straitened circumstances, and they remained very frugal throughout their lives. They did also have butter in the house, but my grandmother cooked a lot with margarine (which she called "oleo" when she wrote down recipes).

  26. Jon said,

    June 22, 2022 @ 1:50 am

    I don't think that any of the butter substitutes in the UK are now labelled 'margarine'. I read that this is because the law defines margarine as having 80% fat, and the substitutes now universally have 70%. They are classified by the supermarkets under the vague term 'spreads'.

    The butter brands have established their names such as Lurpak and Kerrygold solidly in people's minds. They now sell products labelled Lurpak Lite or Kerrygold Spreadable, which, when you check the ingredients, sometimes contain as little as 25% butter.

  27. Not a naive speaker said,

    June 22, 2022 @ 3:02 am

    As kids we used to say:

    Kriegen die Kühe schlechtes Futter,
    wirds Margarine anstatt Butter.

    when the cows get bad feed
    you get margarine indead of butter

  28. Peter Taylor said,

    June 22, 2022 @ 4:45 am

    @Philip Taylor, a tort is a civil matter, and the tort of passing off is misrepresenting the manufacturer or seller rather than the substance. Moreover, the Trade Descriptions Act as amended says that descriptions of food which are covered by the Food Safety Act are not "trade descriptions". You should be complaining to the Food Standards Agency.

  29. Philip Taylor said,

    June 22, 2022 @ 4:47 am

    Thank you Peter — I will do as you suggest.

  30. Jerry Packard said,

    June 22, 2022 @ 10:48 am

    My mom went through that exercise of mixing food color to make margarine (Dad was in Europe fighting WWII), and told me that it had to do with the rationing prevalent at the time. When the Parkay etc. margarines started to appear in advertising, they were not allowed to use the word 'butter' and instead had to say 'the high-priced spread', because the dairy industry wanted to keep a distant connection between the two.

    In Taiwan Southern Min, the word for all butter/margarine is [ma ga rin] with the 'soft g', presumably borrowed phonetically from English.

  31. Jerry Packard said,

    June 22, 2022 @ 10:55 am

    "In Taiwan Southern Min, the word for all butter/margarine is [ma ga rin] with the 'soft g', presumably borrowed phonetically from English."

    Oops, make that 'with the hard g' (voiceless unaspirated velar stop).

  32. David Arthur said,

    June 22, 2022 @ 12:35 pm

    Margarine has a strange presence in Canadian culture. Margaret Atwood even described the maple-leaf flag as looking like the logo for a cheaper variety of margarine.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    June 22, 2022 @ 2:56 pm

    From Ralph Rosen:

    Fascinating—thanks for these. I still associate margarine with 50’s and 60’s America— my mother would serve it as if it was the “right thing to do” while all the while telling us how, as a child, she would eat real butter straight up from the butter dish and longed for those days!

  34. Victor Mair said,

    June 22, 2022 @ 2:57 pm

    From Joe Farrell:

    A very interesting and entertaining thread — not least for the input from long-ago former student Michael Weiss! But, like Ralph, the post about "oleo" — as my mother also called it — awakened the most quasi-Proustian memories. (The tale of ritually completing the manufacture of the stuff is priceless, Victor!) And taught me something: I had no idea about the etymology of the "marg" part. Someone's idea of an in-joke?

    The truly amazing thing, I think, is that oleo was sold as being healthier than butter. Obviously the artificial stuff is made differently today from then, and there is also butter and butter. But when I think of the amount of hydrogenated fat I've consumed in my life, I'm astounded that I'm still alive.

  35. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    June 23, 2022 @ 11:33 pm

    @Not a naive speaker —

    Yesterday I was reading Seven Decades of Milk: A history of New York’s Dairy Industry, by John J. Dillon. The book was published in 1941. In chapter 3, the author discusses milk quality in the city, where cows were still raised into the early 1900s. Because there were no pastures, the animals were permanently kept in stables and fed the used grain (brewers’ swill) so they could produce milk. The result was a liquid with very little butterfat. On page 16, earlier in the book, Dillon noted that when farmers in Orange County began shipping milk down the Hudson Valley to New York City in the 1840s — mostly by rail — customers complained about the thick, yellowish stuff that accumulated on top of the milk after it had been sitting a while. They were completely unused to creamy milk with higher butterfat levels.


  36. Robot Therapist said,

    June 24, 2022 @ 2:34 am

    There is also a chapter on butter and margarine in Margaret Visser's very entertaining book Much Depends On Dinner.

  37. Michael Carasik said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 1:24 pm

    As a kid growing up in north suburban Chicago, we would sometimes ride north on family outings. One of the most amusing things I remember is the gas station on the Illinois side, just short of the Wisconsin border, which featured a large sign: "Last Chance for Oleo."

    Years later I found out from a friend who grew up kosher in Milwaukee that they'd send someone down to that gas station to pick up margarine to be used for meals where meat was being served.

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