Cincinnati’s 1913 Butter Boycott Brought Down Exorbitant Food Costs—For A While

Cincinnati housewives organized to fight the rising cost of butter, and the dairy industry trembled.

Has your grocery bill inched up into the gourmet range? Did you take out a second mortgage to pay for your Thanksgiving feast? Have you ever wondered what you can do to save a few dollars? Your grandmother would tell you: Don’t complain. Organize!

Cincinnati society women, Laura Jenkins, Kate Sager, Geneva Ellms and Ida E. Frost, sort some of the six tons of Churngold oleomargarine purchased as part of the butter boycott.

From Cincinnati Post 8 January 1913 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Cincinnati housewives organized in 1913 to fight the rising cost of butter and the dairy industry trembled. With butter selling for 44 cents a pound, more than 500 local women organized the Cincinnati Housewives Cooperative Buying League and purchased six tons of butter substitute. They then offered their oleo alternative for sale at 24 cents a pound and set up a distribution center at Kate Sager’s house, 2752 Oakley Ave.

The Cooperative Buying League apparently got a “family and friends” discount on their butter substitute because Mr. Harry L. Sager, Kate’s husband, worked for the Ohio Butterine Company, manufacturers of “nut margarine” churned from coconut milk. The brand name was never mentioned in news stories about the butter boycott, but 12,000 pounds of Butterine distributed the brand name throughout the city.

Margarine was a tough sell in 1913. As butter substitutes gained popularity, the dairy industry lobbied Congress to levy a tax on “artificial” butter. Problem was, oleomargarine was just as natural as “real” butter so a tax on margarine was likely to involve a tax on butter as well. The dairy interests found a solution—oleomargarine was dyed to look like butter, so Congress passed a 10-cent tax on every pound of dyed spread. Margarine producers fought back by selling their product without dye (an unappetizing greyish-white color) and offering dye packets for free through retailers. A 1913 Butterine advertisement came close to apologizing for the arrangement:

“You should learn to color it at home to a rich June shade. The great savings makes it well worth your while. Free harmless color at your dealer’s.”

It is not mentioned whether the Cincinnati Housewives Cooperative Buying League distributed “free harmless” dye with their butter substitute, but their organized action proved so popular that women from all over the city made their way to the Sager house to purchase discount spread. As the boycott leaders expected, when women organized, the men in charge of business and government got all flustered. S.E. Strode of the Ohio Agriculture Commission was not amused. He told the Akron Beacon-Journal:

“Emmeline Pankhursting may keep women out of jail in England, but it will take something besides spasmodic boycotts and fasting to solve the world-wide problem of reducing the ‘high cost of living.’”

It is interesting that Mr. Strode should invoke the name of the legendary suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst in his rant against boycotting housewives. The women themselves saw their butter boycott as an integral part of organizing to achieve the vote. At a May 1913 meeting, Jessie Firth (of course identified as Mrs. Charles Firth) reported on the indignities endured by marchers in a Washington, D.C., suffragist parade. Also on the same program was Geneva Ellms, who updated attendees on the fourth month of the butter boycott.

In seeking a butter substitute, Cincinnati women did not have to look far. The Ohio Butterine Company had been churning out coconut-based margarine for years.

From Cincinnati Post 14 February 1913 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The 1913 butter boycott not only demonstrated that women had real power when they organized, it also established new lines of communication across class lines. Soon after launching the butter boycott, the Housewives Cooperative Buying League announced plans for a meat boycott, as well, inspired by women from the other side of the tracks. Geneva Ellms told the Cincinnati Post [24 January 1913]:

“We are planning the meat boycott because of the many requests made by the women living in the tenements in the West End, who have come all the way to Hyde Park to buy our butter substitute at a fair price. These women cannot buy ham at 30 cents a pound and beef at double the amount that it ought to be, and as a result they are fairly starving for a taste of meat. It is for the people of Cincinnati who cannot afford to pay the food barons what they ask that we will arrange this boycott.”

The boycotters also reached out to Ohio farmers, who were being squeezed by distributors and wholesalers at the other end. A compact between the housewives cooperative and a farmers’ congress based in Bellefontaine, Ohio, announced plans to distribute fresh produce, meat, eggs and butter directly to cooperative members, using the new United States parcel post system to bypass the middlemen.

By December 1913, the movement had gone national. Cincinnati’s housewives procured a 500-pound shipment of dried California fruit. The nectarines, raisins, figs and peaches arrived during the season when fresh fruit was almost unavailable.

In addition to opening up new lines of communication, the butter boycott proved to be educational. Women of the Housewives Cooperative Buying League arranged classes to show how to cook with butter substitutes.

By 1915, the League was making plans to open its own municipal market somewhere in town so it would no longer have to sell its discount products out of members’ houses. They organized letter-writing campaigns to pressure government agencies to investigate price-fixing in commodities.

Scattered newspaper reports suggest that the women were frequently successful at forcing prices lower. The butter boycott saw butter drop nearly a nickel in cost and a boycott of eggs saw the price of a dozen drop by 10 cents. The price of meat proved more resistant to boycott pressure, but the women successfully set up their own procurement system and a network of butchering stations and distribution depots to supply discount cuts throughout the city.

Just as the women’s cooperative was hitting its stride, World War I demolished the whole operation. Food shortages and war-time rationing eliminated any advantage offered by food-buying cooperatives.

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