The 1900 U.S. Senate election in Vermont pitted Gov. William Dillingham against Congressman and Gen. William Grout. As the race got nastier, both candidates started slinging mud — or, more accurately, butter.
Consider the humble butter churn — a fixture of New England farmhouses. The earliest Pilgrims in America prized butter. It offered a way to preserve the fat in milk so they could use it during the winter. And so they churned their milk into butter, tucking it away for the cold months.
Over the next 250 years, butter-making technology scaled up dramatically. But by 1870 a new threat was emerging: margarine. At the Paris World Exhibition of 1866, the French government offered a prize to anyone who could develop a palatable, cheap, synthetic butter. A French chemist answered the call, and margarine was born in 1869.
Butter vs. Margarine
Ever since then, a wide variety of butter substitutes, made from animal fats or vegetable oils, have reached the markets as butter-like spreads that we commonly refer to as margarine. Margarine had several advantages over butter. It was cheaper, lasted longer and the products that go into margarine can be used for other purposes. So if margarine wasn’t flying off the shelves, manufacturers weren’t left with unsold surplus.
Margarine also came along right about the time of the 1873 financial collapse and the recession that followed. That failure devastated the United States economy. To farmers, the arrival of a cheap alternative to butter that would worsen their misery was the last thing they needed.
Meanwhile, the invention of margarine inspired producers to slip fats and oils into a wide variety of dairy products. Consumers were buying “filled cheese,” which was cheese to which fat extenders had been added. And one company even tried creating whole milk by adding fat to skim milk.
The farmers looked for political help. Over the years, states and the federal government took a number of steps to protect butter. These regulations lasted all the way up until 1950. States initially tried to outlaw margarine, but these efforts proved unconstitutional. Massachusetts pioneered a law that prevented the sale of margarine that contained any coloring.
Margarine had a flaw: its color. In its raw state it was white. Butter, of course, had a slight yellow tint. The white color put off consumers, so states banned yellow margarine to discourage margarine sales. That law was tested in the courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found it constitutional. New Hampshire and other states took the idea even further, legislating that margarine had to have a p ink color.
The Politics of Butter
The issue would flare up in the election featuring General Grout and Governor Dillingham, two powerful Republican leaders. Grout was older, and a congressman. Dillingham was governor and a former congressman. As Dillingham saw it, Grout believed the senate seat was his by reason of his age. The seat had opened up when Sen. Justin Morrill died, and Grout assumed he should have it.
Grout was a strong supporter of the dairy farmers in Washington. He had put forward legislation that would not only put a heavy tax on margarine, but it would also expand the requirement that margarine had to be uncolored. Instead of the matter being decided state by state, Grout’s proposal would make it a nationwide rule.
Dillingham tried to portray himself as equally supportive of the farmers. That’s when Grout made the startling charge that Dillingham not only wasn’t pro-butter, he was a paid operator for the margarine political machine.
Grout accused Dillingham of taking money from the “oleomargarine trust” to pay for his campaign. And, he pointed out, that Dillingham had not supported a bill in Congress that would have outlawed margarine. He implied that Dillingham had done so as a favor to his backers in the margarine industry.
Dillingham fired back, defending his record as a butter protector. He had, he said, supported a law similar to the Massachusetts law preventing the sale of colored margarine. And if he was elected to the Senate, he pledged, he would gladly support Grout’s bill to tax margarine and ban colored margarine nationwide.
Dillingham’s supporters suggested that it would be best if he would just leave public life, which had rewarded him so well financially, and retire to his family farm.
Publisher O.L. French wrote in the Vermont Phoenix, “It seems to me your whole trouble arises from the fact that you have for years past had the idea that you had a first mortgage on Mr. Morrill’s place in the Senate when he should be through with it, and this idea has taken such complete possession of you that you (have decided) to foreclose.”
In the end, Governor Dillingham prevailed and was elected to the Senate. In one closely watch party caucus in Brattleboro, careful attention was paid to how the farmers voted. They narrowly sided with Dillingham.
Dillingham would serve in the Senate until 1923. Grout moved back to his farm and died in 1902.
If you enjoyed this article, you may like Mammoth Cheese Rolls from the Berkshires to Washington. This story was updated in 2021.