Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

On This Day In History: Gail Borden and Condensed Milk

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.

Interesting Tidbits
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.

Recent Comments

  1. ST

    I have two large tin cans that my mom used to get powdered milk in. She later stored dry goods in it like floor, rice and sugar. They kept the mice away from the food. My mom has passed away and I have the cans in my garage. Just thought you would find this interesting.

    ST

  2. brandy

    i think that this is a very dull paragraph but i think if you added some color than it would be better but this guy did go through a lot i am doing a report of Gail Bordon Jr. and he has been through lots and still never gave up and must have been like a super genious for creating this invention.

  3. Louise

    Thank you so much for posting this fascinating history of Borden’s. I’ve been scouting the internet in search of information about Gail Borden who was born today and you have been a tremendous help. Thanks so much…

  4. robert cox

    My dad worked for the Borden’s milk Co for almost 40 years. Our family had a distr, in the California foothills for many years. His last position was Manager of the Roseville plant near Sacramento. I did every job in the company,– Deliveries, Fountain jerk, icecream hardening room,night watchman, dry ice packer-I even wore Elmer the cow costume on the Bordens train. Any question contact me. I was with Bordens in the northern California from 1949 to 1957———–Bob

  5. Gloria

    I grew up down the street from a Borden milk factory and I babysat for one of the drivers that delivered milk. I have a copper top tin for powdered milk with Elsie’s picture on it. This was in the 1950’s in Indiaanapolis, In on
    N Sherman Drive.Pleasant memories. I also remember I believe that the milk man delivered cotage chees in tin glasses and bowls. I am not sure if that was Borden’s or another company.

  6. info

    1941 the bordan cow started looking more human, yes but possibly 1960 ot 70 is a picture on sticker of just the face of an actual girl in the flower if any one knows about this please let me know where to find it. thank you

  7. carol

    I need help. I am writing a book which takes place in Los Angeles in 1945.

    Was Borden’s milk being delivered in the Los Angeles area at that time?

    And, if so, did it go the name Bordens, or would it have been under another distributor’s name?

  8. […] enjoyed a more-or-less steady supply of coffee throughout the War, oftentimes drinking it with condensed milk (a new invention and superb field ration given its high content of calories, fat, protein, and […]

  9. October 3, 2017

    Gail Borden and his family (some of them) moved to Texas early on, and were actually part of Stephen Austins “Original 300” settlers, in the Republic of Texas. They settled on the Colorado River, south of La Grange Texas, and about five miles north of modern day Weimar, Texas, where my grandparents lived. The Condensed Milk was actually invented there at their home place, on the Colorado River. Then one of the relatives moved back to New York, where the Condensed Milk could be more readily advertised, and the rest is history. There is still a local community located along the Colorado River that still carries the name, “Borden Community” which was their original land grant from Stephen Austin.
    Gail Borden also invented a type of “Meat Biscuit” which won him a grand prize at one of the World’s Fairs. I think that may have been in the 1870’s, but am not certain.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *