Hundred-Year-Old Advice on How to Save Money by Substituting Fats

Today we worry about whether fats are good fats or bad fats. Is a fat saturated or unsaturated? Does it contain trans fats? Does it contain mono- or polyunsaturated fats? Will it increase or decrease cholesterol levels?

A hundred years ago people had different questions about fats. They asked questions like:

  •  How can I get the most calories for the least cost? (Amazingly more calories were seen as better back then.)
  • Does the fat provide sufficient vitamin A? (Fats with more vitamin A were considered better.)

Here’s what a woman wrote in a 1919 magazine article about how she selected fats to serve her family:

When it became necessary to pay two cents for every tablespoon of butter we used in our family, and I knew that we were paying that sum just to satisfy our palates with that specific flavor, I then and there decided that something must be done. I knew that a calorie of energy is as valuable from one source as another and that, measure for measure, other fats than butter would give the same energy.

In choosing a butter substitute, I found that oleomargarine, made largely from beef-oil, contains some, at least of this Fat Soluble A, and if I increased the family milk supply so that the children were getting nearly a quart each day, oleomargarine could replace some butter. I then I could give the family butter only where its flavor was most desirable and expected, and realize that it matters little whether we use lard, cottonseed oil, suet, or the most expensive imported olive oils, from the standpoint of fuel obtained, I could use any clean and wholesome fat in cooking with a perfectly clear conscience.

I found it economic and patriotic, too, to clarify every bit of fat, mixing hard and soft kinds together to get a degree of hardness satisfactory to use in bread, cakes and pastry and in all my cooking. Of course, it costs in time and labor, but save in food and money, and just now there is less food than time or labor.

from “How My Family Saved Fats” by Jessamine Chapman Williams (American Cookery, February, 1919)

The article said that oleomargarine was made from beef oil (tallow?). Today oleomargarine is just called margarine, and is generally vegetable oil product.

22 thoughts on “Hundred-Year-Old Advice on How to Save Money by Substituting Fats

  1. More calories still are seen as a critical need today in many parts of the world. One of the most amazing stories is the developing use of peanut butter in a “therapeutic food” that’s calorie heavy because of fat, but doesn’t spoil. There’s a neat article about “Plumpy-nut” here.

    1. Whew, this makes me realize how fortunate we are to have plenty of food in the U.S. The article is really interesting. The peanut butter treatment sounds like a real life saver.

    1. The author thought about this in a very practical way. This article suggests to me that price of fats and oils must have been a larger part of people’s food budget a hundred years ago than it is now.

  2. Interesting! I love the last paragraph! Economic and patriotic! I don’t know if any modern cook would use that description of her or his food choices. A look at the past is always interesting and fun!

    1. I agree – It’s fun to see how people thought about things a hundred years ago. That’s one of the things that I enjoy most when browsing through old magazines for materials to put into this blog. Original documents from the time period convey commonly understood values and priorities so much more accurately than anything that a historian could ever write.

    1. I find it fascinating how much the ingredients have changed across the years for some commercially-produced foods. In some cases, they almost seem like different products though the name has remained the same.

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