Gail Borden Finally Hit It Big with Condensed Milk

Gail Borden found success with condensed milk.

Elsie Borden

The Borden ice cream logo.

Illustration Courtesy Sam Moore

Content Tools

June is National Dairy Month, and while a strange quirk of publishers assures that the June issue of most magazines will actually reach readers in May, the June issue of Farm Collector seems a good time to take a look at the later career of a man whose name can be found in virtually every dairy case in the nation; who was born in 1801 in central New York; who as a 12-year-old boy went west with his family on a flatboat; who lived in five different states before he was 30, at a time when most folks rarely if ever traveled more than 20 miles from home; who helped settle the city of Galveston when Texas was still a Mexican state; who was instrumental in Texas achieving independence from Mexico and, later, becoming the 28th state in the Union; who was an inveterate tinkerer and experimenter; whose sons fought on both sides in the Civil War; who went through abject poverty owing everyone he knew and then died a millionaire; and who is virtually forgotten today: Gail Borden.

Two years before Texas became a state in 1845, Gail Borden resigned as the Republic of Texas’ customs collector for the port of Galveston, and was finally free to indulge in his inventive streak, which in turn led to his connection to dairy products.

His first fling, which may actually have been his brother Tom’s idea, was a “terraqueous machine,” a common, although waterproofed, wagon with a mast, sail and some unspecified means of steering. Borden invited a group of men and women to go for a ride on the beach, although one of them said: “We may all end up in eternity.” The wind was brisk and the wagon rolled along swiftly; Borden, without warning his passengers, steered the thing into the water, the ladies screamed and everyone rushed to the land side, capsizing the wagon and leaving everyone to wade ashore, wet and angry. That was the end of the terraqueous machine.

Putting a priority on non-perishable

Borden had long been interested in, and experimented with, concentrating different foods, and he had come up with some, shall we say, interesting things. He served one meal that included butter made from lard and milk, bread from bones ground into flour, and pieces of animal hide softened in acid and served with syrup. Borden and one small, hungry boy were the only ones who ate.

Borden became interested in making a food that soldiers, sailors, frontiersmen and others who traveled in the wilderness could easily carry with them, that would keep well, and that would be quick and easy to prepare. In 1850, he was granted a patent for a “meat biscuit.” Concocted of beef broth evaporated into syrup, mixed with flour and kneaded into dough, the resulting morsel was formed into cakes that could be fried or baked. The Army and several others were induced to try the biscuit, but despite favorable reports by several Army officers and winning a gold medal at London’s Great Exposition in 1851, the stuff didn’t look or taste good and didn’t catch on. Borden was left with thousands of dollars of debts and began selling off his extensive Texas land holdings to pay his creditors.

Timing is everything

Borden moved to New York to promote his biscuit but gave up on the venture in 1855. Seemingly undaunted by failure, he turned his attention to milk, an essential food that, given the lack of refrigeration in those days, would stay fresh and sweet for only a day or two, especially in hot weather.

After much experimentation and many failures, Borden discovered that milk being evaporated could not be exposed to air, and it had to be kept in a vacuum. Success at last! An expensive three-year fight to convince the U.S. Patent office that his process was both “useful” and “new” finally culminated in 1856 with a patent.

New York City was the obvious market for Borden’s milk, and he borrowed money to set up a factory at Wolcottville, Conn. New Yorkers, however, couldn’t be convinced of the product’s advantages and wouldn’t buy it. Unable to sell his product or borrow more money, Borden was forced to close his factory and return to Texas to sell more land.

This time bringing his two youngest children (then teenagers) with him, and having arranged additional financing, Borden returned north in 1857 and started another factory in Burrville, Conn. This time, the financial Panic of 1857 put him out of business.

At this critical time, broke and discouraged, Borden boarded a train in his worn, patched clothes and happened to sit beside a well-dressed younger man named Jeremiah Milbank. Borden, of course, began to talk animatedly about his condensed milk. By the time the ride ended, Milbank had offered to back him.

Now Borden had adequate financing. Although sales were slow at first, they gradually increased. Then the Confederates shelled Fort Sumter. Suddenly there was a great demand for condensed milk from the Union Army, and Borden’s problems turned from selling enough milk to making it fast enough to supply demand.

Never again would Gail Borden have to hide from creditors or beg and borrow money from everyone he met. Jeremiah Milbank’s gamble made on the train that day paid off handsomely.

Putting country first

Even though his family and many of his holdings remained in Texas on the Confederate side, and his older son wore the Rebel uniform, Borden was totally loyal to the Union. His younger son served in the Union Army and Borden himself said, “I love my whole country and government more (than the state of Texas), and wish to do what I can to sustain them.”

For the rest of his life Gail Borden lived simply but well, rarely took a vacation until the last few years when he spent winters in Texas, and died of pneumonia in January 1874. Thus passed an unassuming man, a devout Christian active in the temperance movement, a real mover-and-shaker during the early days of Texas, and an eccentric and dedicated tinkerer and experimenter. FC 

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.