Why a First Lady Cashed In: Eleanor Roosevelt & The Equal Rights of Margarine

Eleanor Roosevelt in her second term as First Lady.

It’s an admittedly peculiar pairing: the ” First Lady of the World,” as she was later called, who helped rally the nation through the Great Depression and World War II, then helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights while serving at the newly-created United Nations hawking yellow-dyed animal fat emulsion.

But then again, not much was predictable about Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor Roosevelt doing her radio show.

As First Lady, she raised so many hackles and made so many traditionalists practically apoplectic over her championing of the rights of women, African-Americans, unions, mine workers, and student protestors and her flying around the globe during World War II to visit U.S. troops that her earning large fees for lectures, a weekly radio show, a daily newspaper column and a monthly magazine Q & A column seemed minor in comparison. She made $500 a minute on the radio and $1000 for a lecture. She would tally earnings of $100,000 as First Lady, prompting Congress into examining her tax returns.

Eleanor Roosevelt in a Simmons bed mattress advertisement.

But when she let her literary and talent agents sell her image and name to advertise products, signing them on as either sponsors of her radio show or in magazine print advertisements, the fury was unrelenting.

It wasn’t just that she was seen as making money off the presidency but that by promoting a product she was also somehow degrading the dignity of the presidency.

And somehow, Mrs. Roosevelt pontificating about the virtues of a mattress company on the radio or in print advertisement shocked people – whereas those running for political office and soliciting funds for their campaigns from thousand of corporate entities did not.

Eleanor Roosevelt in bread ad.

She seemed to heap insult upon injury for those aggrieved citizens who thought it undignified that she served hot dogs to the King and Queen of England in 1939, during their royal visit to the Roosevelt estate in the Hudson River Valley, Hyde Park – by then permitting her image to be licensed to a bread company which made hot dog rolls.

Rarely in Washington for a week at a time, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt traveled the full reaches of the USA and her ads for air travel helped establish the industry.

And while certainly her advertisements for the airline industry earned her a good amount, the fact that the First Lady of the United States felt that flying in airplanes to get from here to there was perfectly safe has been attributed to being a key factor in helping launch that new industry in the early 1930s.

Following the sudden death of her husband in 1945, while he was serving his unprecedented fourth term, Mrs. Roosevelt returned home to New York. She was soon named as a U.S. representative to the formative convening of what would soon become the United Nations.

There, as a later U.S. delegate, she helped draft what is perhaps her most important legacy, the Declaration of Human Rights.

The former First Lady had an NBC radio afternoon talk show.

When the Republican Administration of Dwight Eisenhower began in 1953, however, she submitted her resignation, having been a partisan appointment by fellow Democrat, President Harry Truman.

Mrs. Roosevelt also did several TV interview specials just before her 1962 death, with guests including President Kennedy

And Eleanor Roosevelt resumed her media career full-throttle, enjoying a series of different radio and television-interview shows over the years. And she again began lending her name and picture or writing out a testimonial note endorsing a product – for a hefty fee.

Still, she was not earning what she could be. On the one hand, she always accepted invitations to appear as a guest on radio and television shows – and never asking a fee. Secondly, she refused to participate in the highly-lucrative game and quiz shows she was often queried about. She was ever-eager to make more.

Television talent agent Thomas Louis Stix, who represented many famous-name newscasters, took on Eleanor Roosevelt as his client in 1955,  recalled the background behind the odd idea which “puzzled many of her closest friends.”

Eleanor Roosevelt ad for Cyma watches.

At their first meeting, she asked for a run-down of his other clients. When he named the New York Racing Association, she sighed, “That will be a much more lucrative account than I will be. You are going to have a bad time trying to sell me because I’m so controversial.”  The former First Lady believed that most of those who ran advertising agencies were Republicans and that her liberal politics were still anathema to them.

Eleanor Roosevelt in a hearing aid ad.

She would appear in print advertisements for watches and hearing aids – the belief being that as she aged into her late sixties and early seventies she would be uncontroversial with that age demographic. She was averaging only about $2000 annually from such promotional work – an amount which many less-famous figures were pulling in on a weekly basis.

Tom Stix, later in life.

Stix recalled that it was “one day out of the blue,” that he picked up the ringing phone in his office to find the Vice President of Broadcasting at Ogilvy & Mather Advertising Agency, Hank Booraem, on the line with “a cockeyed idea.”

Most of the advertising that Eleanor Roosevelt had done was in print ad copy that tended to be vague yet dignified, without a hard sell. Now, this Mad Man had a new idea.

The Mad Man Ogilvy & Mather Ad Exec Hank Booream.

“Would Mrs. Roosevelt do a straight commercial for a margarine account for quite a lot of money?”

Stix’s initial reaction was that the former First Lady would never consider selling fake butter and on, of all places, television?!

How much, exactly?

$35,000?!

Stix stayed through the meeting. As the details unfolded, the idea became smoothly appealing, like margarine.

And yet, there was even some delicate political implications to promoting….margarine.

The Emperor of Margarine, Napoleon III.

In 1813, the French chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul had discovered a fatty acid of pearl-like deposits and named it acide margarique, for the Greek word for “pearly,” which is margarites.

It was further perfected with the idea of it being used as an inexpensive butter substitute in 1869 by French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, in his quest to win a prize offered by Emperor Napoleon III, who wanted a cheap product the poor masses could afford to enjoy their bagettes.

Mège-Mouriès produced a new type of margarine, using beef fat and milk.

A Jergen’s ad – more famous for its creamy lotion than its creamy margarine.

The idea didn’t get very far in France so two years later, Mège-Mouriès took his concoction to a Dutch chemical company which improved upon it further by adding yellow dye to the fat-milk mush, making it look more like butter.

The company knew all about the appeal of smooth and silky products selling better to the public. It was Jurgens, famous for its hand-lotion.

Soon enough, margarine spread like – well, like margarine.

The use of beef tallows may sound gross but the truth was that, under all conditions, cowns produced milk high in butterfat – which led to rich butter; extracting the oils from the tallow, combined with natural cow’s milk was a cheaper process.

Three years after Jergen’s had bought the Dutch patent to the margarine of Mège-Mouriès, he sold the U.S. patent.and by 1881 there were fifteen American factories churning out margarine.

Dairymen were quickly threatened by margarine-makers.

In that short period of time, margarine took up a full ten percent of what had been the butter industry’s market. Some 50,000 pounds of the new stuff was being made every day and some 10 million pounds of it coming out of New York State alone. And that meant margarine prices were dramatically dropping and the poorest of the poor could even now afford to spread something tasty on their toast. Now, even the meatpacking giant of the Midwest, Armour & Company was getting into the margarine craze.

Something had to be done, the buttermen alarmingly realized.

A margarine spokesman offered a calm and measured response: “Oleomargarine is a pure and wholesome article of food, possessing all the qualities of good dairy butter, the people have overlooked the name and have decided to eat it.”

Calm and measured, of course, has no value in American advertising. And so was born the National Association for the Prevention of Adulteration of Butter – by the diary industry.

An anti-margarine cartoon juxtaposing the horror of the stuff versus the purity of butter.

And so began the war on butter.  A decade ago, Adam Young in his thefreemanonline.org article “The War on Margarine,” offered some of the butter propaganda used against its cheaper, new cousin. Descriptions of what was really in margarine included, “the slag of the butchershop . . . a compound of diseased hogs and dead dogs….the germs of cancer…masses of dead mould, bits of cellulose, various colored particles, shreds of hair, bristles…corpuscles from a cockroach, small bits of claws, corpuscles of sheep, the egg of a tape-worm . . . a dead hydraviridis… old candle-ends and tallow-dip remnants.” Mention of the fact that margarine contained “material more fit for the soap boiler” was also an indirect hit at the Jergen’s Company.

In 1884, New York became the first state to ban margarine, its law stipulating that: “No person shall manufacture, out of any oleaginous substance…produced from unadulterated milk…any article designed to take the place of butter . . . or shall sell or offer for sale the same as an article of food.” Although the law would be overturned, it had set off a national anti-margarine frenzy, where it became outlaw to manufacture and sell the stuff in Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio.

The U.S. federal stamp bond issued to manufacturers required to pay high tax for making margarine.

The federal government finally intruded, Congress creating the 1886 Federal Margarine Act, creating a two-cent tax on margarine and making it illegal to make or sell it without an expensive annual license. It effectively shut down New York’s margarine production; what remained of it shifted to Illinois, because of its meatpacking industry.

In 1894, so determined to prevent Illinois margarine from crossing its border, Massachusetts defended its right to ban margarine before the Supreme Court. The great minds of the highest judgment only complicated matters. On the premise that the consumer must not be fooled, the Supreme Court declared that states had the right to ban yellow-orange dyed margarine but not the plain, white un-dyed stuff.

Pink margarine?!

And within six years, the dairy industry successfully lobbied some 30 states into enacting “anti-colored margarine” laws – ignoring the fact that butter makers often dyed butter with a light gold tint t make it more appealing. Some states went further in the effort to distinguish butter from margarine, ordering that margarine must be dyed pink – or red, or even black.

Teddy Roosevelt was strictly a butter man.

Not all states were in accord on color and so, during the presidency of Eleanor Roosevelt’s beloved uncle Theodore Roosevelt came more stringent regulations. Roosevelt was big on purity, be it racial or dairy product. He had been horrified into action by advocating the Pure Food and Drug Act after reading Sinclair Lewis’s famous novel The Jungle, about the vile practices of the meatpacking and processing industry. He was famous for slathering his toast with the real deal until the pools of melted butter practically cascaded from his toast. On his watch, the federal government in 1902 created a ten-cent tax on any yellow-colored margarine, but in good, fair play, it also cut the tax on any uncolored margarine.

And that was the loophole for those with dreams of margarine-making and some old-fashioned American ingenuity.

Even butter is tweaked with gold food coloring.

How about making margarine with natural grain oils that would naturally leave the stuff with a yellow tint? That way they could manufacture pleasant-looking margarine without tinting – or paying any extra tax. And so new margarine experiments began – using safflower, peanut, and corn oils. When World War I food regulations limited the sale of dairy products, the new all-vegetable bright-yellow margarine industry hit the big time.

And within a dozen years after the war ended, Congress decided to tax even naturally yellow-colored margarine, regardless of what it was made of.

This time, margarine-makers weren’t going to be patties – eh, patsies.

Delrich Margarine – dye it and forget it.

It was the height of the Great Depression and among the most basic of foods that sustained the millions of homeless and unemployed Americans was bread. But if they couldn’t afford butter – they could afford margarine. The law said nothing about selling little packets of yellow food dye along with the tub of white margarine and so the makers of margarine came out with new packaging that now included a small oval “yolk,” which could be easily pressed into the white mush and mixed and mixed by squeezing it until the whole mass was…butter-colored.

The Margarine Movement was further helped by the food rationing of dairy products during World War II. And making margarine with grain oils had the rock-solid support of the farm lobby. The immediate post-war rise in food costs now brought in the most formidable army of all. The American Housewives.

The Margarine Twins not-quite-storming Washington.

Middle-class housewives, squeezed on household budgets and frantic to find ways of stretching a dollar to feed their families, began a systematic assault on Congress. They demonstrated with “Free Yellow Margarine!” placards in Washington.

They flooded Congressional offices with pre-printed postcards asking, “Who comes first . . . the consumer or the butter lobby?”

And there was a pair of shapely, healthy Midwestern models dubbed “the Margarine Twins” who posed in a series of publicity stills shown doing all this, all aimed to get Congress to drop the cursed tax on margarine.

They won.

With great solemnity, President Truman signed the 1950 Margarine Act. Once the tax was dropped, the anti-colored-margarine laws also began to fall away.

The Margarine Twins were mad as hell and weren’t taking it anymore.

By 1955 every state had relented in dumping their anti-colored-margarine laws (except the two most reliant on dairy, Minnesota and Wisconsin which did so, respectively, in 1963 and 1967). Now, it was a matter of winning the hearts and minds of the rest of America. Buying margarine had carried a social status, stigmatizing the poor who could not afford butter. That was a significant public relations roadblock.

Lever Brothers Product line in 1948.

And that’s where Mrs. Roosevelt came into the picture.

The product was called Good Luck Margarine and its new parent conglomerate company had high consumer recognition and a reputation for reliability – but for soap.

It was Lever Brothers, now trying to break into the processed-food industry, which soared in the Fabulous Fifties.

The Jelke Factory which turned corn oil into the finest of “bread spread.”

In 1948, Lever Brothers had bought outright the Jelke Company of Chicago; its founder John J. Jelke had been one of the first American inventors who successfully used grain oils to create oleomargarine, still pumping to goop out of its four-story Victorian margarine-colored factory at the time. Jelke’s leading product had always been Good Luck Margarine – but its efforts at becoming the nation’s leading margarine manufacturer had only bad luck with the advertising it tried to hawk its wares with.

Lever House, the famous 50s architectural gem and headquarters to Lever Brothers famous for its cleaning products.

Now, the edict went forth from the top of Lever Brothers modern, glass skyscraper: Good Luck would crush all competition with a margarine make-over that simply couldn’t fail.

Jelke’s Margarine ads sabotaged the product by raising the class issue.

Jelke ads had tried to make the point that doctors said it was better for kids. Nobody believed it – even though it wasn’t necessarily true.

Then it tried to push the stuff by proclaiming that it didn’t melt even in 95 degrees heat.

That only gave it a more unnatural association.

Most of all, Jelke had sabotaged its Good Luck by bringing up its reputation for being cheap to buy – a point which emphasized the “class” issue: only poor people used margarine – rich people used butter.

1954 Good Luck ad.

In contrast, the Lever Brothers ad campaign for Good Luck made it seem like licking some of the stuff off toast would make for a brighter, Technicolor day for everyone – especially kids!

This called for aspirational advertising of the highest order.

It required not just the most brilliant of print ads, but a living commercial, an advertisement spoken in person on the latest and greatest of gadgets hitting every home in America at the time – the television.

Mrs. Roosevelt in mink.

Who else but the legendary widow of a legendary President who spoke with the sort of proper East Coast aristocratic accent most Americans thought of as British could provide the level of target-marketing that would finally get the whole nation hitched on margarine, munching away on their morning toast and thinking themselves just a bit grand?

Maybe she used it in the White House? Maybe she’s simply insisted upon it at the U.N.?

Stix left the pitch meeting with Ogilvy & Mather, “by now convinced myself that it was a fine idea,” he recalled.with a new angle to sell Mrs. Roosevelt on. “Possibly, I thought, other conservative companies would follow their lead if she agreed to do it,” he said, but realized that was “a big if.”

After taking two days to practice his strategy, he decided on a straightforward approach. “I told her that she would probably be severely criticized for doing anything so undignified” but, “On the other hand, I had told Mrs. Roosevelt that if the commercial was successful she would no longer be ‘poison’ to sponsors.” To ensure that Lever Brothers could in no way compromise the dignity of the former First Lady of the United States, Stix negotiated the contract so that Eleanor Roosevelt would retain all final script and set approval. She didn’t say yes.

She didn’t say no.

She wanted a day to think it over and talk it through with friends. Meanwhile, Stix even promised her secretary that he would hire extra secretarial help to face the onslaught of the expected letters of public outrage she was likely to get. The next day, Eleanor called Stix and logically offered her cost-benefit analysis of the offer, concluding, “Go ahead and make the arrangements.”

Mrs. Roosevelt at tea time.

The First Lady’s tea service.

With control over what she said and where she said it, the commercial was absolute Eleanor. She sat in what looked like a Hyde Park tearoom, with all the signs of old money around her, to her left a china cabinet, to her right a massive silver tea service.  This was an authentic setting, for she famously poured tea for guests, in the old British aristocracy tradition – even though her guests were often radical student group leaders and union labor presidents – or Senate wives. She wore her spectacles for a further air of dignity.

And her words were typically understated, subversive subtext, suggesting that “most people,” of those she knew among the upper-class had never fathomed the novelty of sampling the cheap stuff used by the servants but that now, the world was more egalitarian and she’d given a taste – and she found she liked it: “Years ago, most people never dreamed of eating margarine. But times have changed.  Nowadays you can get margarine like the new Good Luck, which really tastes delicious. That’s what I’ve spread on my toast. Good Luck. I thoroughly enjoy it.”

The discreet voice-over gives the final pitch on “no oily aftertaste,” and makes the point that the former First Lady had sold, shilled, hawked or promoted, but simply “recommended” it. [see the actual commercial at the end of this article]

While the majority of public letters she got in reaction were negative, they totaled less than one hundred. The way Mrs. Roosevelt put it to David Ogilvy of the ad agency, the response was divided: “One half was sad because I had damaged my reputation. The other half was happy because I had damaged my reputation.”

The larger issue was one the public was never to learn until Stix disclosed the truth after Mrs. Roosevelt died. She had risked her reputation and again engender controversy by doing the commercial for the very same reason she had been selling mattresses, the airline industry, watches and hearing aids – to help the very people who could only afford margarine. As she put it:

“With the amount of money I am to be paid I can save over six thousand lives. I don’t value my dignity that highly.”

With boys from the Wiltwyke School.

Though she never disclosed which six thousand lives would benefit from her $35,000, at the time she made the commercial she was a primary financial contributor to the Wiltwyck School, an institution for delinquent boys and the Citizens Committee for Children of New York, which provided food, housing and education for the most impoverished youngsters within the city’s five boroughs.

Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor Roosevelt.

And, coincidence or not, margarine spread far and wide into American households of all economic levels by the mid-60s.

Just before she died, Stix dared trouble Mrs. Roosevelt with a small request – could he bring his young daughter to meet her just for five minutes.

The legendary First Lady of the World was insulted. “You cannot bring her in for five minutes! The idea!” she fired back at him, then added more graciously, “Bring her for tea.”

No word on whether the sly, Robin Hood-of-a- First-Lady spread Good Luck on the toast that day.

Here is the original commercial:


Categories: Advertising & Marketing, Americana, Eleanor Roosevelt, First Ladies, Food, History, Presidential Foods, The Roosevelts

Tags: , , , , , ,

10 replies »

  1. Eleanor Roosevelt gets a listing in the Texas TEKS — but she gets glossed over in the texts and tests. She was an amazing woman. Even interesting in the small details, like how she came to pitch for margarine. Another great story, Mr. Anthony.

  2. I’ve always found that commercial hilarious.

  3. Fantastic article ! I love how you brought in the history of margarine with its beginning and how it has traveled to finally get to the table. You did a fine compliment to Mrs. Roosevelt with this article on her too. By reading this ,one feels a stronger admiration for her and her underlying consciousness for truly wanting to help others.

  4. I have no doubt that Mrs. Roosevelt followed her heart and welcomed opportunities to lift people however she could. She certainly understood how to communicate and work with the media and advertising world on creative ways to help those who could not help themselves. Those were early days of new products and “wonders” and little was know yet of what would come with the production of modified foods. Mrs. Roosevelt would be very proud of the past accomplishments of so many especially given the degree of censorship and private information of those times.

    “Do what you feel in your heart to be right ~ for you’ll be criticized anyway.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

    • You said it perfectly for me Dawn – completely agree with you. Mrs. Roosevelt was so compassionate and without the need for credit that she never made the effort to defend her earning money or explain that she donated it to charity – what mattered was helping people. I greatly appreciate your writing Dawn.

  5. I really enjoyed this article, thanks!

    • James – thank you very much for making the effort to even write to say so. Truth be told, it was actually one of the most interesting articles I ended up writing – it took so many unforeseen turns into otherwise disparate realms to give it the context it deserved. Thanks again.

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