Elsie the Contented Cow was created in 1936 first as a cartoon corporate logo for the Borden food products line; a little brown Jersey cow with a daisy-chain necklace and a charming anthropomorphic smile. Three years later, a live cow was purchased from a dairy farm in Connecticut to demonstrate (along with several other likely heifers) the Borden Dairy Company-invented rotary milking parlor – the dairy barn of the future! in the Borden exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair. The live Elsie, originally named You’ll Do Lobelia (no, I did not make up this bit) came about because an overwhelming number of visitors to the exhibit kept asking which of the demo-cows was Elsie. Of the cows in the show, You’ll Do Lobelia was, the keeper and administrator of the dairy barn agreed – the most charming and personable of the demonstration cows, especially for a generation of Americans who had moved on from a life of rural agriculture and likely never laid eyes on a real, live cow. So, Lobelia/Elsie was drafted into service for commercial interest (much as young American males were being drafted at about the same time for military service). Elsie, her assorted offspring, spouse (Elmer the Bull – the corporate face of Elmer’s Glue) and her successors continued as the public face, as it were – for the Borden Dairy Company, appearing in a movie, even – and the Macy’s department store window, where she gave birth to one of her calves. Her countenance adorns the labels of Eagle Brand condensed milk to this day.
But what – one might reasonably ask – has Elsie the Cow have to do with the Alamo?
There were cows in the Alamo – or at least, at the start of the 1836 siege. William Travis’ open letter from the Alamo, written as Santa Anna’s army invested the hastily-fortified old mission on the outskirts of San Antonio, included a hasty scribbled post-script. “The Lord is on our side—When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn—We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels & got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves.” A facsimile of the letter – a plea for immediate assistance – was printed at once, and published by the two major Texas newspapers of the time: the Texas Republican, and the Telegraph and Texas Register.
The Telegraph and Texas Register was owned by a partnership; a long-time settler in San Felipe de Austin named Joseph Baker, and a pair of brothers, originally from New York – John Petit Borden and Gail Borden, who served as editor, although his previous profession had been as surveyor and schoolteacher. Baker and the Bordens published their first issue almost the minute that revolution broke out in Texas, with the “Come and Take It” fight at Gonzales in late autumn, and subsequent issues of the Register covered the various issues and controversies in the mad scramble that was the Texas Revolution. And scramble meant literally – for by early spring, the Telegraph was the only functioning newspaper in Texas. John Borden left to join the fledgling Texas Army, and a third brother, Thomas, took his place in the partnership. On March 30th, the Borden brothers and their partner disassembled their press and evacuated San Felipe with the Texian rear guard, a short distance ahead of the advancing Mexican Army. They set up the press in Harrisburg two weeks later, and just as they were about to go to press with new issue – the Mexican Army caught up to them. The soldiers threw the press and type into the nearest bayou and arrested the publishers. Fortunately, the Bordens did not remain long in durance vile, for in another week, Sam Houston’s rag-tag army finally prevailed.
Gail Borden was still raring to go in the newspaper business, and mortgaged his Texas lands to buy a replacement press. The Telegraph resumed publication in late 1836, first in Columbia, and then in Houston – but on a shoe-string. The Borden brothers had sold their interest in the newspaper by the following year, and Gail Borden moved into politics, serving as Collector of Customs at Galveston, and from there into real estate, before developing an interest in – of all things, food preservation. His first essay was a sort of long-lasting dehydrated beef product, called a “meat biscuit”. The product won a prize at the 1851 London World’s Fair, and proved to be popular with travelers heading to California for the Gold Rush, and with Arctic explorers – but the US Army – which Borden had been counting on for a contract to supply meat biscuits – was not enthused, which left Gail Borden casting around for another likely product. There was a great concern at the time with the contamination of milk, especially in cities, especially since diseased cows could pass on a fatal ailment in their milk.
It took Gail Borden three years of experimenting, developing a vacuum process to condense fresh milk so that it could be canned and preserved. After a couple of rocky years, Gail Borden met by chance with an angel investor, who saw the utility of Borden’s process, and had the funds to back an enterprise called The New York Condensed Milk Company. Although Borden developed processes to condense fruit juices and other food products, milk was and continued to be their best-seller, especially when the Civil War broke out, and demand for the product rocketed into the stratosphere. By the time that he died, in 1874 – back in Texas and in a town named Borden, after him – no one could deny that he had not been wildly successful as an inventor and innovator.
In 1899, the New York Condensed Milk Company formally changed its name to the Borden Condensed Milk Company, to honor their founder. (There have been a number of rejiggering of company names since – currently the Elsie logo appears on the Eagle brand of condensed milk, through corporate machinations too convoluted to explain here, if anyone even would be interested.)
And that, people, is how Elsie the Contented Cow is connected to the Alamo.