Gail Borden Finally Hit It Big with Condensed Milk

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The Borden ice cream logo.
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An 1893 trade card featuring the "Borden baby," an enduring feature of Borden promotional pieces.
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A can of Borden's Peerless evaporated milk with a Spanish language label.
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A Borden's delivery truck dating to about 1960.
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Gail Borden

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
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

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

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

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