In quest of Swiss Army knives, which my grandson Nick collects, we plied the passageways of local antique shops.
Passing by several bulbous-bottomed bottles, he asked me what they were.
They were quart milk bottles.
I told him the milkman left one on nearly every doorstep in town every morning. When it was cold, the milk froze and the milk ice pushed the cardboard bottle tops into the air four or five inches supported by a round, worm-like column of frozen milk.
Milk bottles and frozen milk columns seemed so normal and common to me that I was surprised he didn't know what they were, and I wondered why the old bottles were in demand as antiques.
South Dakota milk producers in the 1930s where having to contend with less expensive canned milk from the surpluses in other states. It was cheaper than the fresher, bottled doorstep supply left on the front porch.
So milk producers, always well organized, were pressuring grocers to stop what they called the bootlegging practice.
Dairy farmers seem always to be facing pricing competition from somewhere. Butter and the substitute known as Oleo caught the public eye in the cash-strapped difficult financial times of the 1930s Great Depression. The appearance of what looked like butter nearly brought dairy farmers to arms.
Oleomargarine tasted like butter, but it wasn't butter.
In fact, after it was manufactured Oleo was as pale white as a limp ladle of lard. To protect themselves, farmers in South Dakota and other states got laws passed that butter substitutes couldn't be sold in the color yellow.
In some states, legislators were even more adamant. They passed laws requiring Oleo to be pink. That must have been hardly appetizing
Newspapers in the late 1920s carried stories of citizens fined for selling illegal booze, and illegal substitutes for butter yellow in color. A. E. Schroedermeier of Leola and Henry Joe Miller of Lennox were in trouble in December of 1928, the Leola paper reported, for yellow oleo sales. Both were slapped with $15 fines.
To get around the law, manufacturers included in Oleo packages a small vial of coloring that the buyer mixed with the white lump and magically turned it yellow and into what looked and tasted like butter.
I remember having the job of mixing the vial of coloring to our family's cheap white Oleo. With enough greasy kneading, it was transformed into our yellow butter supply.
There was a 1929 case pitting South Dakota against Swift and Company for selling a butter substitute yellow in color. Swift even brought in pointy-shoed lawyers from Chicago to argue their case to no avail.
Minnesota still had laws protecting real butter from yellow Oleo in 1963. Wisconsin lifted its ban on yellow Oleo in 1967. Some vestiges of the fight remain. There's a federal law prohibiting grocers from selling margarine in packages weighing more than a pound.
I'm not sure when Oleo became legal in South Dakota, but it was probably in the 1950s or 1960s. Perhaps you know, and can e-mail me using the address at the bottom of this bit of yellow journalism.
Or, if you have a Swiss Army knife you no longer need... But please, no Oleo yellow vials. I've done all the kneading I need.
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