Okay, I am two days early but on Sunday, August 19, it will be the the 151st anniversary of Condensed Milk. To celebrate this product which everyone under-appreciates we searched Oxford Reference Online and found this great profile of the Borden company in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Be sure to read the whole thing to find some neat tidbits about Elsie The Cow.
At one time the Borden company was America’s largest dairy business. Gail Borden Jr., the founder of the Borden Condensed Milk Company, was born in Norwich, New York, in 1801. He died in 1874, leaving behind a thriving business, two sons, and a host of inventions and patents.
Borden worked as a surveyor during the 1820s and moved to Texas in 1829. For a time he edited the Telegraph and Texas Register, a newspaper founded by his brother and another partner to serve as the voice of the government of Texas when it was still a republic. Some claim that Borden wrote the famous headline “Remember the Alamo.” He turned his creative mind to inventing and soon came up with ideas for the lazy Susan and the prairie schooner, a sail-powered wagon. But the invention for which he is best known is a process using a vacuum evaporator to kill bacteria in fresh milk. He is reported to have committed himself to finding a safe milk product after witnessing several children die aboard ship after drinking contaminated milk. He borrowed the idea for using a vacuum evaporator from the Shakers, who used this technology to preserve fruit. Charles Page and Henri Nestlé also used vacuum evaporators to start their companies. In time, both of these companies would combine to form the Nestlé Company. Borden called his unique product “condensed milk.”
In 1857 Borden established a small company to produce his new product. Borden received financing from Jeremiah Milbank, and in 1858 they formed a partnership called the New York Condensed Milk Company. The product came on the market at the same time national magazines were condemning “swill milk” produced under unsanitary conditions in city dairies.
Borden’s first major orders came from the U.S. government, which used condensed milk to feed the troops during the Civil War. In a patriotic spirit Borden adopted the American bald eagle as his trademark. In 1930 Borden introduced Elsie the Cow as the company’s mascot and brand identity. Elsie went on to become one of the best-loved trademarks in the country.
In 1919 the company changed its name to the Borden Company and throughout the twentieth century purchased a number of smaller companies to capture supermarket shelf space. Many of the companies acquired have remained regional brands, but others have catapulted into national brands, including Snow’s seafood chowders, Wyler’s bouillon, RealLemon lemon juice, Cracker Jack candied popcorn, Pennsylvania Dutch egg noodles, Drake Bakeries, and Campfire marshmallows.
In 1929 the company acquired a small company that made glue from casein, a by-product of skim milk. From this initial beginning in the adhesives business the company’s specialty chemicals businesses grew. In 2001 Borden sold its domestic and overseas food businesses to become Borden Chemical, Inc.
Elsie the Cow: Elsie, the world-famous “spokesbovine” of the Borden Milk Company, first began appearing in newspaper and radio advertisements in the 1930s. In these early appearances Elsie is clearly a cow. She stands on all fours; she does not wear clothes, except for a garland of daisies around her neck; and her face is squarish and cowlike, with a broad mouth and big eyes.
At the New York World’s Fair of 1939–1940 Borden’s enormous and enormously successful exhibit featured the Rotolactor, a turntable device on which cows rode while attached to milking machines. Many fairgoers asked the guides which cow was Elsie. It was in response to these inquiries that the Borden Company decided to choose the handsomest Jersey cow at the fair and introduce her as Elsie. The company put Elsie herself on display, and in the second year of the fair an exhibit entitled “Elsie in Her Boudoir” became part of the Borden exhibit.
Over the years Elsie became less of a cow and more of a girl. Her udder was last seen in 1940. Her face became narrower and more human and her eyes more heavily lashed. In 1941 Elsie stood up on her hind legs and began wearing dresses or aprons with a cinched waist that gave her an enviable hourglass figure (for a cow). Andy Warhol chose Elsie, along with Marilyn Monroe, as the subject for one of his paintings of American icons.