Gail Borden introduced the world to condensed milk on this date in 1851. He was yet another of the inventor/entrepreneurs that defined the Nineteenth Century. He started out as a surveyor in Mississippi, then became a newspaper publisher in Texas, then invented a meat biscuit to feed soldiers and finally started working on a milk product.
He didn’t actually fail at anything – he got bored with surveying and although his newspaper had a good reputation, it not only didn’t make any money, the Mexican army destroyed it during an invasion of Texas. His meat biscuit didn’t make any money either, although it won a prize at the exposition in London.
But condensed milk was the answer to everyone’s prayers. In a world without refrigeration and poor sanitation, the diseases you could get from bad milk were legion, never mind the awful taste. And Borden, while not vertically integrated, was vertically in control. The process began on the farm – he set new standards of cleanliness for dairies and made sure they were followed.
The idea of condensed milk actually came from the Shakers, who had a similar process for preserving fruit juices. Condensed milk, unlike evaporated milk, is simply milk solids with very little liquid and sugar added. It was originally called sweetened condensed milk.
Borden was soon selling so much condensed milk that he leased his patent to others. With the advent of the Civil War, the government bought great quantities of the stuff because of its long shelf life and nutritive value.
Gail Borden got rich, the company got huge and in the 1950s started diversifying. They soon owned snack foods, pasta (they once had 30% of the market), chemicals, adhesives (Elmer’s Glue) and so on. In fact, they got too big not to fail and in the early 90′s went bankrupt and sold off bits. The milk business went to Mexico’s Grupo Lala, the chemicals went to a new company that included BakeliteAG and snack foods went to Dean Foods.
Grupo Lala US owns Eagle Brand Condensed Milk, pretty much the same kind of stuff in the same kind of can that Gail Borden created a century and a half ago.
He had a girl’s name, btw, because that was his father’s name; his mother’s name was Philadelphia.