On this day in 1869, challenged by Emperor Louis Napoleon III to produce a satisfactory substitute for butter suitable for the empire’s armed forces, French chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries patented a substance called oleomargarine, later known as margarine.
Facing a growing population and hordes of hungry French soldiers and sailors whose nutritional requirements were not being met, Emperor Napoleon III launched a contest offering a prize to anyone who could make a successful substitute for butter, that most prized of French staples. Specifically, Napoleon III was looking for a substance that not only tasted like butter and contained enough fat to bolster his population, but also did not turn rancid as quickly as the real thing.
Mege-Mouries went to work on Napoleon’s challenge and emerged from his lab with a successful substance two years later. It was an emulsion of water and oil, more precisely animal fat like beef drippings, low-fat milk, and ground cow udders. The product was spreadable, had a long shelf life, and tasted like butter—sort of. The product’s name, margarine, was a nod to its pearly luster (the Greek word for pearl is “maragon”), gained from the emulsion of the fatty substance. Mege-Mouries was awarded the patent for his kitchen-chemistry creation on 15 July 1869 and he also won Napoleon’s coveted prize.
But it wasn’t enough for food-minded Europeans. Housewives at the time turned their noses up at the chemical substance. And in 1887 a Margarine Law was introduced in Germany, stipulating that margarine should be displayed separately from butter and clearly labeled as margarine and not butter. More efforts from the dairy industry to melt margarine’s sales followed, and to some degree, worked.
Finally, in 1872 chemists patented a process for emulsifying margarine with skimmed milk and water, and it became sufficiently palatable for commercial success. Today margarine is predominantly manufactured using vegetable fats rather than animal fats, and its popularity has spread across the world, with its main markets including the US, Russia, India, and Germany. The French, however, appear content to stick to the national spread of choice, butter.