Were Babies Really Named Oleomargarine?

Humor magazine Judge published the poem below, entitled “The Substitute,” in the early 1900s:

“Smith has a lovely baby girl,
The stork left her with a flutter.
Smith named her Oleomargarine,
For he hadn’t any but her.”

Oleomargarine is a name I never would have taken seriously if not for this Genealogue post, which mentions Minnie Oleomargarine Avery, born in Missouri in 1919.

Yes, that’s right. Minnie’s middle name is fake butter.

How many other people have been named for oleomargarine? It’s hard to tell. The SSDI and various censuses reveal at least six more:

  • Oleomargarine Nugent, born in Maryland in 1891
  • Oleomargarine Horney, born in Michigan in 1903
  • Oleo Margarine Williams, born in Florida in 1919
  • Oleomargarine Fristoe, born in Missouri in 1922
  • Oleo Margarine Fanner, born in Texas in 1928
  • Oleo Margarine German Franke, born in Texas in 1928

They also include hundreds of people named either Oleo or Margarine. There’s no telling which of these folks were named specifically for oleomargarine and which were not, though. (A lot of the Oleos did have the promising middle initial “M.”)

Why did people name their kids for fake butter?

“Maybe because oleomargarine was for many years an illicit substance,” Genealogue opines.

Illicit substance?

It’s true — starting in the 1880s, dairy industry lobbyists (read: the butter people) pressured federal and state governments to discourage people from consuming margarine, which had been introduced in the 1870s.

This resulted in margarine bans, margarine taxes, and more. There were even laws preventing margarine-makers from coloring margarine yellow, like butter. In the vintage Nucoa ad below, the blurb above the toast reads: “For table use, tint NUCOA golden yellow with the pure Color-Wafer included in each package. For cooking, just use it as it comes–a pure, natural white.”

margarine

These regulations, in turn, created a sort of oleo black market. Demand for yellow margarine was so great that sales of “bootleg” colored margarine were flourishing by the turn of the century.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that most of the anti-margarine laws were finally repealed.

So, were these laws — and the consequent forbidden nature of fake butter — what turned “oleomargarine” into an enticing baby name?

Or would oleomargarine have been used as a name regardless, simply because it’s an interesting word?

What do you think?

Image: Nucoa Margarine recipes from the 1940s by genibee under CC BY-NC 2.0.


7 thoughts on “Were Babies Really Named Oleomargarine?

  1. Good grief! I pronounce margarine as “margaryn”. As “Margareen” it almost sounds like a name.

  2. In 1966, a Chicago garage band called the Warner Bros. (!) recorded a song called “Oleo Margarine,” which went unreleased until latter-day compilers raided the Dunwich Records vaults. It’s cheerfully goofy.

  3. Oleo Margarine Williams was not born in Florida.
    Oleo Margarine Williams was her married name and she was born in Kentucky, and married in Florida.
    She was however, born in 1919.
    I should know, because she was my mother.
    Oleo>Latin, combining form representing ole-um>oil and
    Margarine>French, from the Greek~margaron>pearl.
    Her names means Oil of Pearl. Like from the Frankincense tree.
    Her name is Italian, and pronounced “O-leo {the first letter O~like as in the last letter in the word zero} and {leo~like in Leo the Lion} and Mar-ga-reen {sort of like the color green but with a {a} inserted after the g, in the word green}. Just like C in DC said.
    The Oleo part of her name came from a small church called San Giovanni of Oleo, in Italy. The current church is an octagonal 16 century Renaissance chapel.
    The chapel sight is reportedly where St. John the Evangelist was tortured in the 5th century,first with boiling oil, then with poison. St. John survived both times. The he was condemned to exile on the island of Patmos, where John wrote Revelations

  4. Thanks for the clarification, Lorene, and the story!

    These days, SSNs are typically issued in the state of birth. In the early part of the 20th century, tho, this wasn’t always true, so I shouldn’t have said “born” there.

  5. Dear Nancy,
    You were right about the social security number!!!
    I found out my mother got her social security number before 1951 in Illinois. Thank you.

  6. My mother name was spelled Eleo Mararine Atwell born 1919 in Kentucky. Dad was Ernest Bernell Williams and he was born in Florida

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