Gail Borden was a serial inventor, but the best idea he ever had came about as the direct result of a product that never took off.
By the time Borden invented condensed milk, writes Sam Moore for Farm Collector, he’d created an amphibious vehicle (it crashed), served meals of his own invention that included bonemeal bread and butter made of milk and lard (almost nobody ate it) and his pièce de résistance, the meat biscuit.
“Concocted of beef broth evaporated into syrup, mixed with flour and kneaded into dough, the resulting morsel was formed into cakes that could be fried or baked,” writes Moore. “The Army and several others were induced to try the biscuit, but despite favorable reports by several Army officers and winning a gold medal at London’s Great Exposition in 1851, the stuff didn’t look or taste good and didn’t catch on.”
Borden, who was born on this day in 1801, had a longtime interest in making preserved food that the soldiers, sailors and settlers of America could rely on. That interest was probably shaped by the years he spent as a surveyor in Texas, according to the Oxford University Press. But nothing he came up with took off. After the meat biscuit debacle, he was left with significant debt, Moore writes.
However, his next product is the reason his name is still connected with one of America’s classic dairy products. “He is reported to have committed himself to finding a safe milk product after witnessing several children die aboard ship after drinking contaminated milk,” writes the press. “He borrowed the idea for using a vacuum evaporator from the Shakers, who used this technology to preserve fruit.”
He patented a vacuum evaporator meant for milk in 1856. This process and device for “condensing and preserving milk,” as that patent reads, changed the dairy industry and helped to launch Borden’s empire. “For the first time milk could be kept pure and storable without benefit of refrigeration,” writes Caroline Hughes Crowley for Smithsonian Magazine. “For the first time, too, it could be distributed over great distances.”
Over the next few years, he partnered with a financier to form the New York Condensed Milk Company, which produced and distributed the thick, sweet milk produced by evaporating most of the water from milk, adding sugar (which inhibited bacteria) and canning it.
Borden’s innovation was extremely popular, and particularly took off when Union troops were given it as a field ration during the Civil War, Crowley writes. At that time, the company also adopted the patriotic bald eagle as a symbol. The New York Condensed Milk Company changed its name to the Borden Company in 1919, and today dairy products are still sold under the Borden name.