Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Gustafson, Melanie


Oleomargarine was invented in 1869 in France as an inexpensive alternative to butter. Those with a financial interest in the production of butter immediately saw oleomargarine as a threat. In the United States, initial political action took the form of state laws, acts that ranged from outright prohibition to some form of restriction. State acts prior to 1886 were found to be insufficient and so a remedy was sought at the federal level. This thesis will look closely at the 1886 debates in the House and Senate, as reported in the Congressional Record, which led to the passage of the 1886 Oleomargarine Act. The debates in Congress that took place in 1886 can be better understood as debates within a sequence of debates. In particular, the debates show the issue in the context of the following transcendent historic political themes: food and drug regulation; the internal revenue system; the size and role of the federal government; interstate commerce; protectionism; and regional and party differences on these issues. The procedural path the bill followed is also an important contextual component, grounding this analysis in the political reality of 1886. The language used in the debates illustrates an argument over contested meanings, with appeals to the agrarian heart of the country, and cries against the corrupt practices of the oleomargarine industry and profiteering speculators. These debates demonstrate how socially constructed definitions not only have real political consequences, but that the political process plays an important role in shaping those definitions. The 1886 Oleomargarine Act is one event in an almost 100 year history of state and federal legislation to regulate oleomargarine and protect butter in the United States. The 1886 Act, which originally included a prohibitive rate of taxation for all oleomargarine, was significantly watered down in Congress. The result was not destruction but consolidation of the oleomargarine industry. The use of taxation to address the problem, however, was altered and not abandoned in subsequent legislative revisions. Oleomargarine was seen as taxable because of its low cultural status. The other products that were taxed at the time were alcohol and tobacco, soon to be joined by playing cards in 1895. These were moral taxes designed to regulate what people consume. The result of the 1886 Act was, in effect, the sanctioning of the stigmatization of oleomargarine by the United States Government.