It’s not just liquor that’s been bootlegged. ‘What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?’ a new exhibit at the National Archives at Kansas City (400 West Pershing Road) delves into the 140-year-old practice of illegal butter manufacturing as part of a look into how the federal government has shaped the food system.
“In the 1870s, the dairy industry was able to successfully lobby the federal government to attach taxes and fees to margarine,” exhibits specialist Dee Harris says. “That caused this whole bootleg butter industry, where people were producing butter and margarine. There was a slew of individuals arrested and sent to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth for five years.”
Several of the bootleggers’ original prison files are on display, which discuss their crimes against butter.
“It’s something not many people know about,” Harris says. “And it’s a chance to learn about what was happening locally.”
The showcase, organized in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, is based on an exhibit that debuted at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in 2011. Visitors walk through four themes — farm (where the butter crimes are discussed), factory, kitchen and table — each of which looks at the relationship between producers, consumers and the federal government.
Harris suggests that the factory section will be of particular interest to Kansas Citians because of the historical connection between the area’s stockyard district and the call for better conditions in slaughterhouses in the wake of Upton Sinclair writing The Jungle.
The kitchen section is filled with the classic iconography and posters (like the one at right) that were part of the food conversation during World War I and World War II, as the federal government made the case graphically for rationing.
‘What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?’ is on display at the National Archives in Kansas City from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The exhibit is free. There’s free parking in front of the building or in the Union Station parking garage (which is $2 per hour after the first 30 minutes).[Raidy and logo image courtesy of the National Archives at Kansas City. War poster image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.]