Borden Jr., Gail (1801-1874)
Gail Borden Jr. (1801-1874)
Inventor; industrial entrepreneur
Condensed Milk. It was not meteoric or sensational, but the rise of Gail Borden Jr.’s business selling condensed milk was emblematic of the transformations overtaking the American economy. Ultimately the emergance of products like Borden’s cans of condensed milk signaled how profoundly new industrial processes would alter not just production and distribution, but the fundamental patterns and expectations of everyday life in American kitchens and at American tables.
Go West. Borden was born in 1801 in rural, upstate New York. Like so many others, his family moved west, first to Kentucky, then to the Indiana Territory. As a young man Borden taught school and surveyed land in Mississippi. Shortly after marrying, he picked up and moved again, further west, to join his family in Texas. Here he performed more surveys and served as an agent for the Galveston City Company, which was developing and selling the properties that eventually made up the city of Galveston. Along the way, he devised several inventions, including the prairie schooner (a wagon powered by sails), and the lazy Susan, a revolving tray used for serving food. Thus Borden played a key and varied role in western expansion and settlement. Indeed, as editor of the Telegraph and Texas Register, he is credited with writing the headline that became a rallying cry in the war against Mexico: “Remember the Alamo.”
Trial and Error. To this point, Borden had lived a life of some local civic accomplishment and solid respectability. But he made his most lasting mark in his forties and fifties, when he began to experiment with food-processing techniques. As an agent and promoter of western settlement in frontier conditions, he had recognized the utility of preparing food in concentrated, portable forms, and he now turned his knack for invention in this direction. First he concocted the “meat biscuit,” which was nonperishable (if less than savory). Borden invested heavily in this venture, but it sank commercially, in part because of opposition from competitors vying for army contracts. Still, the meat biscuit earned him international recognition, including a trip to London where Queen Victoria conferred the Great Council Medal on Borden in 1851.
Inspiration. It was on the passage back to the United States, Borden later recalled, that inspiration struck for the product that would make him literally a household name. When several children died on board the ship from drinking contaminated milk, Borden set about finding a way to preserve milk. Eventually he succeeded, by evaporating the milk in a vacuum pan over slow heat. (Though he called the product “condensed milk,” what kept it from spoiling was not the evaporation, but the heat, which killed the bacteria.) This accomplishment did not readily or easily translate into commercial success, however. Borden did not manage to persuade the U.S. Patent Office to confer a patent on his technique until 1856. And the resulting business struggled to attract customers for its new product. After several early efforts, Borden formed a partnership in 1858 with wholesale grocer, banker, and railroad financier Jeremiah Milbank. This enterprise, called the New York Condensed Milk Company, began to do business in earnest after one of its advertisements appeared in an issue of Leslie s Illustrated Weekly that happened to contain an article exposing the unsanitary conditions of New York’s dairies (including the fact that many city dairy men added chalk and eggs to their product). Local sales grew quickly, and soon the company was delivering to a network of customers in New York City and Jersey City.
Success. Borden’s eventual early success was therefore tied closely to several key aspects of doing business in the new economy: advertising and an urban market. The business took another leap forward (or in market terms, outward) at the outbreak of the Civil War, when the U.S. government began to order condensed milk for its troops. As the scale of the war grew, so did Borden’s business, and with the coming of peacetime, the company enjoyed an established market of Civil War veterans. Business continued to thrive through 1874, when Borden died and management of the company passed along to his sons.
Significance. The expansion of Borden’s market hinged directly on the experience of the war. Appropriately, the company emblazoned its product with an American bald eagle—an early example of the business trademarks that were beginning to label the products that moved through this new, national marketplace. The mark symbolized not only a new market, but ultimately a new kind of consumer good and a new pattern of consumption: originally designed for frontier portability and wartime durability, products such as Borden’s condensed milk adapted readily to centralized, industrial production and distribution across a national scale. Though Borden himself may not have fully realized it, what he had done was to transform milk from an agricultural commodity that circulated in local networks (particularly before the spread of pasteurization) into a brand-name and a packaged product, well-suited for railroad transportation and ready-made for grocery shelves. It was not only a new kind of food, it was an altogether new sense of what food was and where it came from.
Alfred D. Chandler Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977).