Gail Borden Finally Hit It Big with Condensed Milk

Gail Borden found success with condensed milk.


| June 2013



Elsie Borden

The Borden ice cream logo.

Illustration Courtesy Sam Moore

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.