A bit about butterine

It seems Australians have been getting steamed up about butter substitutes for more than 100 years.

Margarine (sometimes called oleomargarine or oleo) was invented in France around 1870. I always assumed it didn’t take hold in Australia until the 1940s, when butter became scarce under wartime rationing.

In fact Melbourne was home to a ‘butterine’ factory in Yarraville in 1885, pretty much under where the Westgate Bridge is now. Its owner, Frederick Phillips, had brought out American men experienced the new technology of margarine making.

The Victorian public didn’t exactly embrace butterine. Melbourne papers reported cases of shopkeepers charged with passing it off as butter. Country papers bemoaned this strange product that sold in the city and threatened local dairymen. Versions of gags like this one did regular rounds of the humour sections right up until the Great War:

“How do you pronounce the last syllable in ‘butterine’ ” asked the customer.

“You don’t pronounce it, madam; it is silent”, stiffly remarked the butter dealer as he weighed her out six pounds of oleo.

In this highly skeptical climate, Phillips exhibited some PR moves a modern publicist would be proud of.

Not long after opening, he invited the Weekly Times in for a look at his factory and a walk through (most of) the modern, pristine manufacturing process, which the paper describes in detail.

Did I mention that before the 1950s, margarine products were based on animal fats not vegetable fats?

Beef kidney and caul fat was brought in from local meat suppliers to be sorted, chopped and pulped. In a secret room it then underwent some mysterious procedure known only to the managers (presumably this was the knowledge brought from America). This resulted in rendered fat. They then added ‘Danish colouring fluid’, which the reader was assured was also used in butter making to get that nice yellow hue. After some steaming and pressing, the liquid oozed out. That was churned with a little bit of actual milk, then after some repeated plunging and patting … hey presto, butterine!

If you couldn’t afford the top quality stuff, there was always the second-grade oozing.

In a world where people worried about food adulteration, and mass food manufacture was pretty new, perhaps this description of a scientific, partly mechanised processes and the ‘scrupulous cleanliness’ of a modern factory comes across differently – but it’s hard to read it without our 21st century sensibilities.

Careful to emphasise that butterine was superior butter in its own right, Phillips assured readers that he only ever sold his product as butterine – if unscrupulous shopkeepers did otherwise, what was he to do? Any anyway, Phillips argued, butterine was a very accessible alternative for the poor.

The company also fired off many energetic letters to editors taking on the butterine critics, and sent butterine samples for review to Adelaide and Perth papers ahead of selling through agents there.

Similar articles continued to appear in other papers. When you get to the North Melbourne Leader’s effusive take in 1887, you have to think that advertorials are probably nothing new:

‘But above all it has brought about an improvement in the culinary art, for it is now extensively used by all classes in the preparation of pastry and puddings, sauces, fancy cakes being eminently adapted for the purpose and preferred in this respect to butter by all connoisseurs de la cuisine’

The Leader reported that 14,500 pounds of butterine was being made every week, and large amounts were exported to NSW and Queensland.

But for all his efforts, Phillips’ butterine forays don’t appear to have lasted long. Farmers’ lobbying paid off and in 1893 the Victorian Margarine Act came into effect. Strictly regulating manufacture and banning use of the nice yellow food colouring, it certainly would have made things harder.

But things were probably going wrong for Phillips before that. He became insolvent in 1886, and his brother took over running the business. Then, in 1887 there was a fire at the Sydney butterine factory managed by Phillips’ business partner, where a large shipment of Yarraville butterine was stored. There followed a protracted court case with their insurance company.

Among the evidence given in that case, the Australian Star reported the unfortunate information that there had previously been three fires at businesses Phillips had been involved with, including his Yarraville storehouse in 1886. They still won the case.

To be fair, when it came to fire risk, a butterine factory was probably like one big tallow candle. But luckily for Phillips, he always seemed to be very well insured.

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