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Oleomargarine revenue stamps provide an interesting glimpse of history

Tony Lawrence was born in 1948 and spent most of his career as a self-employed computer troubleshooter for Unix systems.

If you have thought about margarine in recent years, your thoughts were probably health related. You may even not have thought of "margarine" at all - many of these products are labeled as "buttery spread" now.

That labeling would have been illegal at one time, and even now there are restrictions on what these butter substitutes are called and what ingredients they may contain. Consumers are often confused as to both health issues and how to use these products in recipes that call for butter.

As interesting as that all is, that's not my purpose here. Instead, I want to concentrate on one small aspect of the history of oleomargarine as represented by "revenue stamps".


Taxation is hardly new. We know that the Egyptians collected taxes five centuries ago and no doubt those who were collected from were complaining even then. I think it's also fair to say that people probably started looking for ways to evade taxes just a few minutes after the first tax collector arrived.

One way to avoid taxes is to claim (truthfully or otherwise) that the tax has already been paid. That may not have been possible when the Pharaoh's tax collector arrived at your fields as the harvest was coming in, but as taxes expanded to manufactured goods, things became more complicated. Records had to be kept, of course, but marking goods in some way to indicate that the government had collected its due was another way to help keep both sides honest.

Jumping quickly forward several millennia, the United States has a very particular relationship with such markings: it was the British Stamp Act of 1765 that eventually led to the American Revolution. Most people will remember this as having something to do with tea, but that tax was actually later. This tax was on most printed things, requiring legal documents, newspapers and the like to be printed on specifically stamped paper.

This was nothing new for Britain. These taxes and the stamps that made documents legal went back to 1694 and had been copied from a Dutch tax created in 1624. In many respects, it was a wonderfully easy tax: a document without the stamp was illegal, which made avoiding the tax much more difficult.

As we know, Americans eventually revolted, but that didn't mean that they didn't recognize the value of taxes or the methods that could indicate payment.

Revenue Stamps

Revenue stamps have been used for all manner of goods - whiskey, cotton, tobacco and more. If something was taxed, there was some way of proving that the tax had been paid. That proof was often a "revenue stamp". With modern computerization and record keeping, many of these methods have passed into disuse, but some exist even to this day.

You could even think of a postage stamp as a form of revenue stamp. Postage stamps show that your letter or package has been paid for. It should therefore be no surprise that philatelists (stamp collectors) often include revenue stamps in their collections.

1/4 cent per pound for uncolored margarine - 12 pound perforated stamp

1/4 cent per pound for uncolored margarine - 12 pound perforated stamp


One such revenue stamp that is relatively easy to find was attached to shipments of oleomargarine. Here I am showing a stamp for a twelve pound case of uncolored oleomargarine. This is a fairly common stamp, although the stamps for twenty-four pound cases are even easier to find.

Note the word "uncolored" and the tax of 1/4 cent per pound. There was a revenue stamp for colored margarine too - that was ten cents per pound. In 1931, ten cents was roughly worth $1.43 (see Measuringworth for details). As the price for a pound of butter would have been less than forty cents per pound, that dime represented a significant tax.

That's assuming that you could buy colored margarine at all - in many States you could not. If you wanted your margarine to look anything like butter, you'd mix in a food dye (helpfully provided in the packaging, of course) before you served it.

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This all had to do with butter producers not wanting competition. Some States went even farther, requiring margarine to be dyed pink or even black. Many lawsuits were fought over these laws.

I am just old enough to remember the end of all that in the very early 1950s. I don't actually remember my parents mixing coloring into margarine, but I do remember them talking (probably with great relief) about not having to do it any more. Others, either a few years older or who lived in States where the laws lasted longer, have more detailed memories.

Some remnants of the dairy industries war against margarine have hung on in State laws that require butter be the default in restaurants, but these are slowly going away.


If you look closely at that stamp, you'll see that it is perforated - there are holes that spell out some numbers.

Stamp collectors refer to these as "perfins" and stamps without these holes may be worth more. The holes came about because manufacturers wanted to prevent theft of stamps they had purchased intending to use for their shipments.

I don't know what the perforations on this stamp represent, but there are collectors who specialize in such details.

One word of warning: Perforations are one of the easiest things to counterfeit, and the perforations of revenue stamps are even easier than those for postage stamps. I would be very leery of paying any premium for perforated revenue stamps.

1935 Potato Tax Stamp

1935 Potato Tax Stamp

Every stamp tells a story

This is just one small example of the history that these stamps can represent. Tales of taxes, politics, corruption, theft, court battles and more are all in these little colored bits of paper. You could build a truly fascinating collection from just revenue stamps.

Although I described these as "common", such a collection could be expensive to build in pristine condition. However, given the use of these stamps, damaged examples will be available and at substantially less cost. The inherent history is still present even if the stamp itself is torn or stained.

I hope this brief introduction was interesting. One of these stamps could provide a young child with the impetus to learn more about the history behind them. That was certainly the case for me; an early gift of some old coins and stamps aroused my curiosity about how and why they had come to be. I'm sure that's not at all uncommon, and such a gift could create a lifelong hobby that would provide both recreation and education.

It's easy enough to find these stamps for sale on-line; I have included some links here for your convenience.


Tony Lawrence (author) from SE MA on February 11, 2013:

I would be interested in that myself.

betty on February 11, 2013:

I want more history on the Potato Revenue stamp

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