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.
Exhibit visitors asked questions, which the on-site hostesses recorded, and Borden’s later discovered that six of every 10 people asked, “Which cow is Elsie?” Thereafter, a nice-looking Jersey cow named “You'll Do Lobelia” was chosen from the herd and re-christened “Elsie.” The cow was dressed in a daisy chain and an embroidered blanket and appeared in the Rotolactor between milking sessions. Naturally, the public loved the “real” Elsie.
By 1940, Elsie was ensconced in what was called a “Barn Colonial” boudoir, where she was milked and fed by pretty young hostesses. The boudoir included paintings of Elsie’s ancestors on the wood-paneled walls, a four-poster bed with a straw “mattress,” window curtains, lanterns for light and even a giant-sized telephone so Elsie could “call her office.”
Apparently, Elsie was so busy that she needed help. She was assigned a “husband,” a bull named Elmer that carried the load at the fair while Elsie was in Hollywood co-starring with Kay Francis in the movie Little Men. Elmer’s boudoir had a table, cards and chips for his nightly poker parties. Soon after Elsie’s movie was finished, the happy couple’s first offspring came along — a “daughter” named Beulah.
The expanded family required an even larger boudoir, with a “calf coop” containing a pink, four-legged sweater, diapers and four little booties.
After the World’s Fair closed in 1940, Elsie and Beulah made appearances across the country, traveling at first on a special train and later in an adapted truck called the “Cowdillac.”
As one curtain closes, another opens
Just when everything seemed well, Elsie’s rising star suddenly fell. On April 16, 1941, Elsie was on her way to an appearance at Shubert Alley Theatre in New York City, when the Cowdillac stopped for a red light in New Jersey and was hit from behind by another truck. Sadly, Elsie was badly injured and was taken back to her home at the Walker-Gordon Farm in Plainsboro, N.J., where a veterinarian euthanized the famous cow.
Elsie was buried on the farm, and a headstone set to mark the grave. The stone is still there, although it’s been moved at least once and can now be seen near a little gazebo at the Plainsboro Museum, among rows and rows of homes in what is now the Walker-Gordon housing development.
Borden’s executives didn’t want the successful marketing ploy to end, so another “Elsie” was quickly recruited and the public never missed You'll Do Lobelia. During World War II, the new Elsie continued where the first spokescow left off, while Elmer went to work as the “spokesbull” for Borden’s glue products. The family was humanized in Borden’s advertisements from the era and were humorously portrayed doing the same everyday chores as the people who used Borden’s products.
In 1947, a male calf was born to the reigning Elsie, and a contest to name the new “baby” generated a million entries. Beauregard was the name chosen, and the little bull calf became part of the Borden’s family.
By the 1950s, Elsie’s popularity had faded, although she still made public appearances. During its centennial year in 1957, Borden’s mounted a campaign to revive interest in the old cow, and she gave birth to twin calves. A second naming contest garnered more than 3 million entries, and the twins were named Larabee and Lobelia.
As time marched on, Elsie stopped traveling and was seen only as the familiar “Elsie-Daisy” trademark on Borden’s products, although she made one live appearance in 1971 at Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
About this time, Borden’s moved its headquarters to Columbus, Ohio, and Elsie occasionally stayed at the Ohio State University dairy farm between promotional trips. Elsie, along with a series of bull calves representing Beauregard, again toured in the Cowdillac escorted by two OSU agriculture students, who were known as the “Elsie Cowboys.”
Dianne Shoemaker of Salem, Ohio, a dairy specialist with Ohio State University Extension, was an OSU agriculture student at the time and recalls her attempt to get hired as an Elsie escort. In those days before women’s liberation became a household word, Borden’s proved it didn't consider women equal to men.
The company wouldn’t hire Dianne because executives refused to let her travel with a boy on a cross-county trip. More than that, company officials were sure that two girls couldn’t handle the heavy truck ramp. Yet, even after Dianne and another girl proved they could lift the ramp, the company maintained its stance. Eventually, Borden’s allowed Dianne to accompany Elsie to a grocer’s trade show in nearby Kentucky, as well as several appearances close to Columbus. As a result, Dianne considers herself an “Elsie Cowgirl” to this day.
In 1997, the Dairy Farmers of America, a large dairy cooperative with more than 24,000 members reached an agreement to use Elsie to advertise some of its products, and Elsie works there to this day. Elmer is still laboring at the glue factory, and his famous Elmer’s Glue is used across the world for many bonding jobs. As in many of today’s families, the bovine couple’s kids seem to have scattered to the winds and one never hears of Beulah, Beauregard, Larabee or Lobelia these days.For more information: Plainsboro Historical Society Inc., 641 Plainsboro Rd., Plainsboro, N.J. 08536; (609) 799-9040; www.plainsborohistory.org. 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 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.