Postcard Album Update: Charming children promoted Swift’s Butterine

What could be more nourishing for rosy-cheeked children than a liberal helping of sweet creamery butter? Swift, the giant Chicago meat packer used postcards of adorable children in national costumes to promote their alternative: butterine.

What exactly was butterine? In the days before product labeling it was sold as a substitute for real butter, but the contents were a bit obscure. It was made of animal fat with the addition of other ingredients, possibly some milk. It was intended for cooking or as a spread for those who couldn’t afford or were too frugal to buy the genuine article.

The savings don’t seem impressive today, but in 1902 a penny still had some buying power. A pound of real butter sold from 20 to 25 cents. Butterine was available for 15 to 18 cents a pound, but conscientious mothers had to be convinced that it was wholesome and good for their children. What better way than to associate it with the delightful little girls and their dolls on this set of advertising postcards?

The four known cards show Spanish, Japanese, Dutch and American Indian children and their dolls with small scenes at the top. It’s very appropriate that different nationalities were shown. Swift reaped great profits by shipping butterine abroad, but not always with stellar results.

Production of butterine began in 1881, but it soon became a source of controversy. In Dublin, Ireland an “inspector of nuisances” caught at least three sellers passing butterine off as real butter. One grocer was cautioned, but two others were fined five pounds and ten pounds.

The cases revolved around whether the “butterine” sign was accidentally or deliberately obscured. A similar case in Britain also resulted in a five pound, five shilling fine.

The high point for butterine came when it was given an award for good taste, appearance and color at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. It apparently ceased production under that name when the plant manufacturing lard and butterine was destroyed by a fire in the Chicago stock yards in 1909.

This was far from the end of the butter substitute controversy. Swift became a major producer of oleomargarine, or margarine as it’s now known. It’s sale was bitterly contested by the butter lobby, a movement that began in New York and New Jersey. One early law in New Hampshire required an unappetizing pink color be added, but it was struck down by the Supreme Court. Still, by 1900, 80% of Americans couldn’t buy margarine with yellow food coloring added. Some manufacturers supplied food coloring to be added by the consumer.

The lower price of margarine kept it on grocery shelves, and butter shortages during World War I made it especially popular. Butter regained lost ground during the Great Depression, but margarine soared in sales during World War II. During this time my mother tried mixing yellow food coloring into white margarine in a big bowl, a rather messy and time-consuming process. However the substitute spread didn’t please my father and soon disappeared from our table.

Eventually the laws against colored margarine were relaxed. In 1967 Wisconsin was the last state to capitulate.

Swift also issued a set of six butterine advertising postcards featuring children with airships. They also promoted their oleomargarine with another three sets designed with child-appeal. Postcards can also be found advertising their meat projects, but the butterine cards are certainly more appealing than the meat packing scenes, supposedly showing how sanitary and efficient their processing was.

Regardless of whether butterine had any appeal as a butter substitute, the advertising postcards have lasting charm and collectibility.