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Old 06-02-2019, 04:26 PM
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OLEO in the midwest in 1965


As a historian one of my favorite hobbies is identifying old aerial photos taken around the country in the 1960s through the 90s. Especially those where the flight maps have been lost. Lately I have been working in Lake County, IL in the 1965 photos.

I am finding OLEO signs everywhere. Huge signs on every store - grocery stores, gas stations, gift shops, even restaurants! Letters that are 2 feet high. On every side of the building. One gas station has OLEO plastered everywhere and painted the word on the side of a parked semi-trailer. It takes up the entire side of the trailer. I have seen signs that seem to read, "OLEO hamburgers", "OLEO cigarettes". "Buy a case of OLEO and get a free carton of Pepsi". "OLEO by the case or carload".

What the hell was going on? Was it just made legal to sell that year?

https://vintageaerial.com/photos/illinois/lake

Dennis
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Old 06-02-2019, 05:30 PM
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Are the photos close to the Wisconsin border? WI was apparently the last state to legalize the sale of yellow oleomargarine, and there was apparently a demand for the stuff in America's dairy state:

https://daily.jstor.org/when-margarine-was-contraband/
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Old 06-02-2019, 05:37 PM
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It was legal to sell, it just wasn't very popular in dairy country. There used to be laws preventing margarine to look like butter, but most were repealed by the mid-50s. My grandmother told me how my mother would have to knead yellow coloring in margarine so it would look like butter. My parents lived in Milwaukee, then Chicago, from around 1958-1969, so this is a bit consistent with what you are seeing.
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Old 06-02-2019, 07:10 PM
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It was legal to sell, it just wasn't very popular in dairy country. There used to be laws preventing margarine to look like butter, but most were repealed by the mid-50s. My grandmother told me how my mother would have to knead yellow coloring in margarine so it would look like butter. My parents lived in Milwaukee, then Chicago, from around 1958-1969, so this is a bit consistent with what you are seeing.
I moved to Wisconsin from Illinois in 1975; my 5th grade teacher, who was a lifelong resident of Wisconsin, would tell us about having to buy margarine in the 1960s with the little yellow tablets, and then working it into the margarine.

And, yes, the OP is talking about Lake County, IL, which is right on the Wisconsin border, and less than 50 miles from Milwaukee. Also, the OP notes that he's looking at pictures from 1965; as the article to which Folacin linked notes, the ban in Wisconsin was only repealed in 1967.

Last edited by kenobi 65; 06-02-2019 at 07:12 PM.
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Old 06-02-2019, 07:49 PM
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Originally Posted by JohnT View Post
It was legal to sell, it just wasn't very popular in dairy country. There used to be laws preventing margarine to look like butter, but most were repealed by the mid-50s. My grandmother told me how my mother would have to knead yellow coloring in margarine so it would look like butter. My parents lived in Milwaukee, then Chicago, from around 1958-1969, so this is a bit consistent with what you are seeing.
When I learned about this (some twenty or so years ago), it cleared up a matter that had been distressing me since childhood. See, Mom always bought margarine for the family table, and the boxes (containing four four-ounce sticks, individually wrapped) bore the informative label that read: “colored.” I always wanted to be the one to open the box, and I was always bitterly crushed that the margarine was ALWAYS yellow, and never blue or red or green.

Two generations later, when Heinz (briefly) came out with green and purple ketchup, I did not find myself sufficiently compensated.
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Old 06-02-2019, 08:45 PM
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My Grandfather's family owned a small creamery back in the 1920's and 1930's. They would not allow 'oleo' in the house. My 97 year old father still refuses to use margarine.
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Old 06-03-2019, 10:44 AM
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I have done a lot of reading since posting and it is quite an interesting story. Basically, as others have mentioned, people from Wisconsin made regular trips to Illinois to stock up on the much cheaper oleo. It was fully illegal and carried fines up to $6000 to get caught transporting untaxed oleo. Housewives would pool their money and take turns making the run.

Yellow oleo was banned outright I think. Some of the packages had red die and only turned the oleo pink. Kaylasdad would have been happy!

These particular photos were taken in the very northern part of the county as it turns out, not even the rest of the county was involved.

The laws were finally repealed after the Wisconsin politician who was defending butter the most was asked to take a blind taste test. He picked the oleo!! Then his wife told the press she had been serving him oleo for some time. In shame he dropped his objection and the oleo laws were repealed.

Mostly. There are still some oddities on the books. Any restaurant that serves oleo also has to serve butter. And you specifically have to ask for oleo.

And finally, I don't think I ever heard anyone in Ohio use the term, "oleo". It has always been margarine to me.

Dennis


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Old 06-03-2019, 11:06 AM
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Originally Posted by mixdenny View Post
And finally, I don't think I ever heard anyone in Ohio use the term, "oleo". It has always been margarine to me.
That's an interesting point - I'm from Minnesota, and we always had margarine also (when we weren't calling it butter). I wonder why that form caught on, as opposed to oleo? Both are three syllables so not easier to say, and oleo is at the front of the formal name so you would think that would have been the winner.
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Old 06-03-2019, 12:15 PM
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And finally, I don't think I ever heard anyone in Ohio use the term, "oleo". It has always been margarine to me.
Which part of Ohio? My parents and grandparents, from the SW corner both use/used the term. It's even included in a few family recipes.
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Old 06-03-2019, 12:35 PM
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This idea that it was banned in Wisconsin and advertised on the border makes sense, but the thing that baffles me is that it would be marketed as "OLEO". I can't say I've ever heard an American refer to Margarine as Oleo except in the NYT Crossword. Was there some big rebranding from Oleo to Margarine in the 1980's or something?
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Old 06-03-2019, 01:08 PM
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Originally Posted by Omniscient View Post
This idea that it was banned in Wisconsin and advertised on the border makes sense, but the thing that baffles me is that it would be marketed as "OLEO". I can't say I've ever heard an American refer to Margarine as Oleo except in the NYT Crossword. Was there some big rebranding from Oleo to Margarine in the 1980's or something?
The chemist who invented it called it oleomargarine [". . . from Latin for oleum (olive oil) and Greek margarite (pearl indicating luster) . . . "]. The consensus online is that margarine became the trade designation. There are some online claims that Oleo was once a specific brand. But, really, the original word was easily split either way.
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Old 06-03-2019, 01:39 PM
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Originally Posted by Omniscient View Post
This idea that it was banned in Wisconsin and advertised on the border makes sense, but the thing that baffles me is that it would be marketed as "OLEO". I can't say I've ever heard an American refer to Margarine as Oleo except in the NYT Crossword. Was there some big rebranding from Oleo to Margarine in the 1980's or something?
Even when I was growing up in Wisconsin in the 1970s, the term "oleo" was falling out of favor, and seemed to be primarily used by older people (who were, no doubt, veterans of oleo bootlegging trips to Illinois ).

My WAG about its usage on all of those signs in the 1965 pictures: "oleo" has five fewer letters than "margarine," and made for more impactful signs.

Last edited by kenobi 65; 06-03-2019 at 01:39 PM.
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Old 06-03-2019, 01:59 PM
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Growing up in the 1960s (in Texas), I frequently heard "oleo." My parents always called it that.

The word simply disappeared by the 1970s. I always assumed that manufacturers decided that "oleo" sounded too, uh, oleaginous.

An anecdote about the novelty of margarine in the 60s: My parents bought a new refrigerator that featured a "butter compartment" with a switchable heating element. The idea was that your butter sticks would be kept just soft enough to slice easily. Well, my mom put the "oleo" in that compartment and it turned into a puddle.
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Old 06-03-2019, 02:09 PM
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Originally Posted by kenobi 65 View Post
I moved to Wisconsin from Illinois in 1975; my 5th grade teacher, who was a lifelong resident of Wisconsin, would tell us about having to buy margarine in the 1960s with the little yellow tablets, and then working it into the margarine.
I think you mean working it into the oil. I thought by the 60s it was mainly sold in sticks, but that variety of unmixed contents maybe had had a longer shelf life or some other advantage. I think the yellow pill was primarily dye, and maybe some milk solids for texture.

I hated margarine when I was a kid in the 60s, it was that old fashion stuff with that heavy margarine flavor. My grandmother wouldn't use anything else because "Why would you pay extra for butter!". It was probably the 80s before I tried any of the modern versions which do taste a lot more like butter, but I still stick to real butter.

ETA: I guess it could be called working it into the margarine since the oil is the oleomargarine part.

Last edited by TriPolar; 06-03-2019 at 02:11 PM.
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Old 06-03-2019, 06:26 PM
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Ah, yes, the oleo shops at Rosecrans, IL where highway 41 crossed Rosecrans road, about a mile south of the WI state line! I think there were a few at Russell road too, north of that, just below the line. The signs still stood, screaming "colored oleo!" to passerbys well into the 1970's.

Here's a different article about the Oleo Wars.

Last edited by Qadgop the Mercotan; 06-03-2019 at 06:28 PM.
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Old 06-03-2019, 07:54 PM
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I should have included a direct link to a photo:

https://vintageaerial.com/photos/ill...1965/BLA/87/14
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Old 06-03-2019, 08:09 PM
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I should have included a direct link to a photo:

https://vintageaerial.com/photos/ill...1965/BLA/87/14
Heh. That's right at Highway 41 and Rosecrans road (route 173), all right.
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Old 06-03-2019, 08:25 PM
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Mostly. There are still some oddities on the books. Any restaurant that serves oleo also has to serve butter. And you specifically have to ask for oleo.
Around the turn of century it was still illegal here (melb.aus) for shops to sell sandwiches with margarine instead of butter. Even if people wanted unsaturated fats. Even if people asked for it.
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Old 06-03-2019, 08:26 PM
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Originally Posted by Omniscient View Post
This idea that it was banned in Wisconsin and advertised on the border makes sense, but the thing that baffles me is that it would be marketed as "OLEO". I can't say I've ever heard an American refer to Margarine as Oleo except in the NYT Crossword. Was there some big rebranding from Oleo to Margarine in the 1980's or something?
My parents lived in Chicago until 1954. They always called it oleo, even years later.
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