Elsie the Cow's Rise to Stardom

Let's Talk Rusty Iron

| June 2004

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    Elsie the Cow became the official "spokescow" for Borden's Condensed Milk Co. during the East Coast "milk wars" of the 1930s to help give the company a softer image.
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    A postcard from the Borden's Co.'s "Dairy World of Tomorrow" exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair.
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    Two hostesses care for Elsie in her boudoir at the 1939 New York World's Fair.
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    Elsie doing her part during World War II by encouraging Elmer to use roller skates instead of his car in order to save rubber.
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    Lounging on her four-poster bed, Elsie takes an important phone call.

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Almost everyone in America knows Elsie the Cow, the bright-eyed, smiling Jersey with a curl between her horns and a chain of daisies around her neck.

Yet, few people know the fascinating tale about how the country’s most famous cow became a household name.

1930s milk wars

Elsie first appeared in 1938 as a cartoon-like cow that advertised products for Borden's Condensed Milk Co. During the late 1930s, three large milk companies — Sheffield Farms Milk Co., the U.S. Dairy Products Co. and Borden’s — sold two-thirds of all the fluid milk consumed in New York City. Without outside competition, the companies cut the price they paid farmers who supplied them with milk. As a result, large numbers of New York farmers organized, declared a strike and began dumping their product rather than accept fixed prices.

These so-called “milk wars” occurred in different parts of the country during the 1930s, which resulted in huge amounts of wasted milk while people went hungry — and many dairy farmers went broke. In addition, violence naturally accompanied the strikes and public opinion was usually against the strikers.

New York farmers, however, joined the Dairy Farmers’ Union of the State of New York, a well-organized group that kept the strikers under control and violence to a minimum. The union was successful in negotiating higher prices for its members’ milk, while at the same time waging an effective public relations campaign that turned public opinion against the large milk firms.

To give the company a softer, gentler image in the face of public scrutiny, Borden’s introduced Elsie the Cow. Surprisingly, the marketing gimmick succeeded rather well. In 1938, a radio announcer reading a Borden ad on the air made a big fuss over Elsie. Soon after, she began to get fan mail. As a result, Borden’s made Elsie its official “spokescow,” and her image began to appear in newspaper and magazine advertisements across the country.

The “Dairy World of Tomorrow” 

Borden’s also erected a large exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, called “Dairy World of Tomorrow.” The exhibit included an ultra-modern “Rotolactor” automatic milking parlor where spectators could witness 150 cows milked twice daily. The exhibit was a hit, but offered nothing to draw the public between milkings.

6/28/2014 8:29:05 PM

Out of all the articles written about Elsie not one explains how Elsie got her name. I had an elderly client who used to be a model. She never told me this but her friend told me that when the Borden's were looking for a name for the cow they named it after my client Elsie. If this is true I'm wondering if that was her on the can. Does anyone know if this is true or if it's not how Elsie got her name? I would have thought one of the articles would have told us how.


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