Friday, December 3, 2010


It's the holiday season and a lot of people have been busy making pies, candies, and other desserts. An essential ingredient in a lot of that baking and cooking is sweetened condensed milk.

What a lot of people don't know is that Gail Borden introduced the product in the late 1850s and sales boomed during the Civil War! One historian deemed food technology and production so important that he named Borden among the most influential people of the Civil War!

Chapter Two in my first book, Lincoln's Labels: America's Best Known Brands and the Civil War (Edinborough Press, 2008) is all about Gail Borden and the Civil War and I am happy to offer the excerpt below.


Lincoln's Labels: America's Best Known Brands and the Civil War
by James M. Schmidt

Chapter Two
"Consecrated Milk

"The soldiers’ fare is very rough, the bread is hard, the beef is tough;If they can stand it, it will be, through love of God, a mystery." (wartime poem)

“I am greatly encouraged to embark in the Milk business,” Borden wrote a friend in 1854. Indeed, the market and societal need for a reliable and portable supply of milk was undoubted. No one knows for sure what inspired Borden to pursue his hallmark invention of condensed milk. One story attributes it to Borden’s sympathy for the plight of the immigrant children who were without wholesome milk on his return from the London Exhibition. An admirer attributed it to the fact that his friend Borden was “so full of the milk of human kindness.” (1)

Whatever the reason, Borden began experimenting with condensed milk in earnest at his home, now in New York, until he developed a process which yielded a milk of good flavor and keeping. He applied for a patent in May 1853, but the Patent Office questioned the novelty of the process for three years. Borden, with the help of some influential scientists, was able to prove that vacuum protected the milk from the air and kept it clean while it was being condensed. On August 19, 1856, Borden received Patent No. 15,553 for an “Improvement in the Concentration of Milk.” Still, his meat biscuit patent had never guaranteed his success, and for some time he failed to secure enough money to build a plant to produce the milk.

After a chance meeting on a train, Borden formed a partnership in 1858 with Jeremiah Milbank, an experienced businessman and financier who had the foresight to trust in Borden’s eventual success. The men styled their new enterprise the “New York Condensed Milk Company,” and began to do business in earnest. With Milbank’s financial backing, local sales grew quickly, especially after New York newspapers published scathing articles exposing the unsanitary conditions of the city’s dairies. Given Borden’s record of lackluster commercial success, though one could still wonder whether condensed milk would have an appeal beyond his neighbors.

On the eve of the Civil War, Borden’s New York Condensed Milk Company was doing well. To be sure, neither Borden — nor his patron, Milbank — were enjoying a fortune, but Borden was characteristically optimistic about the future and Milbank was satisfied that he had made a good investment. The war solidified that satisfaction; from the first shots to the final surrender, Borden’s challenge was to meet an immense demand. In three months in 1862, Borden — at capacity — sold nearly 50,000 quarts of milk from his plant in Wassaic, New York; a year later he was able to send out an equivalent amount in a few days.

Still, Borden could complain, “we do not meet half the orders.” To that end, he opened more facilities in Pennsylvania, Maine, Connecticut, and his eventual flagship factory at Brewster, New York, which alone could produce 20,000 quarts of condensed milk daily. Borden’s milk was never part of the official army ration, but — as Union General William T. Sherman recalled — the commissary often supplied his soldiers with “all manner of patent compounds,” including “desecrated vegetables and consecrated milk.” (2)

A reporter for the New York Observer visited Borden’s Wassaic factory during the Civil War and marveled at the “interesting and impressive” operation, and concluded that he had never seen a factory where “so much order, cleanliness, and comfort were combined” in any like production. The entire process — from receiving milk from the farmers to sending it off in boxes was done at the factory, all “with such scrupulous regard to cleanliness, that the result is irreproachable,” the reporter wrote. A tin shop was at work constantly, producing eight thousand cans each day; the workers were all young women aged eighteen to twenty, who earned “more than a dollar a day easily.” The reporter noted that the chief market for Borden’s milk was “in the army, where it is a great blessing as you will readily believe.” (3)

“Borden’s condensed milk in cans was one of the luxuries invented at this time for our delectation and comfort,” wrote a Massachusetts colonel, who — like many Union soldiers — mentioned the “great blessing” by name in their letters and memoirs. The soldiers either asked that the milk be sent from home, received it by the graces of the Sanitary Commission, or — most often — bought it from the sutler. At fifty to eighty cents a can (a good day’s wages for a private soldier), however, it was a rare indulgence. “Only a recruit with a big bounty, or an old vet the child of wealthy parents, or a re-enlisted man did much in that way,” one soldier recalled. A New York soldier garrisoned at Fort Pulaski, Georgia, which was off limits to sutlers, remembered a comrade-turned-tradesman who would “pass through the casemates calling out ‘Borden’s condensed milk?’” Reportedly civilian sales also got a boost when word got out that First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln served Borden’s milk at the White House. (4)

Though Borden’s condensed milk was not an official ration item, it was in the Union army’s official list of medical supplies (as was his extract of beef). Surgeon General William A. Hammond declared that the milk was “in extensive use in our armies and hospitals,” and “proved most serviceable on the battlefield as a source of nutriment for the wounded.” In the hospitals, a favorite concoction was “milk punch,” a combination of condensed milk and brandy or whiskey, which Hammond declared an unmatched remedy for the low fevers which plagued the army. Even when Borden’s milk wasn’t being used for its intended purpose, it was still a valuable commodity. One nurse, determined to secure some fresh pork for dinner with her fellow matrons, remembered, “I took a can of condensed milk . . . and soon made a trade.” Another nurse, responsible for cooking for hundreds of sick soldiers on floating hospitals, recalled that when the food stores were exhausted, they broke up hard-tack into buckets full of sweetened milk and water. “Oh, that precious condensed milk,” she exclaimed, “more precious to us at that moment than beef essence!” (5)

Confederate soldiers were also treated to Borden’s milk, especially when they captured Union supplies. Henry Kyd Douglas, a staff officer to the famous “Stonewall” Jackson, remembered a memorable winter dessert of canned peaches into which he poured a can of condensed milk, all stirred with the point of his sword. “Peaches and cream in January, and furnished by the enemy, too!” he exclaimed. “I well remember the first time I went down and saw the spread table — with genuine coffee and condensed milk — my first acquaintance with it,” Howard McHenry — a Confederate soldier from Maryland — remembered of his inaugural meal as a prisoner at Fort Delaware. By war’s end, though, the treat of sweetened milk was too much for starving Rebels. “[We] shared our food until every haversack was empty,” a Pennsylvania volunteer remembered of the surrender scene at Appomattox. “The sweet aroma of real coffee staggered the Confederates,” he added, “[and] condensed milk and sugar appalled them.” (6)



1. “I am greatly encouraged . . . ” in J. B. Frantz, Gail Borden: Dairyman to a Nation (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951), p. 217; “so full of the milk . . . ” in G.J. Burleson, The Life and Writings of Rufus C. Burleson (n.p., 1901), p. 729.

2. “We do not meet half . . . ” in Frantz, p. 260; “all manner of patent compounds . . . ” in W. T. Sherman, Memoirs of Gen. W.T. Sherman (New York: C. L. Webster & Co., 1891), Vol. 2, p. 391.

3. Scientific American, October 29, 1864, pp. 281-82; for another wartime exposition on Borden’s factory, see also Scientific American, January 21, 1865, p. 53.

4. “Borden’s condensed milk . . . ” in M. W. Tyler, Recollections of the Civil War (New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1912), p. 132; “Only a recruit with . . . ” in J. B. Billings, Hardtack and Coffee: Or the Unwritten Story of Army Life (Boston: George M. Smith, 1887), p. 118; “pass through the casemates . . . ” in Palmer, pp. 42-43.

5. “in extensive use . . . ” in W. A. Hammond, A Treatise on Hygiene: With Special Reference to the Military Service (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1863), p. 508; “I took a can of . . . ” in M. G. Holland, Our Army Nurses (Boston: B. Wilkins & Co., 1895), p. 397; “Oh! That precious . . . ” in K. P. Wormeley, The Other Side of War (Boston: Ticknor & Co., 1889), p. 107.

6. “Peaches and cream in . . . ” in H.K. Douglas and F.M. Green (ed.) I Rode with Stonewall (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1940), p. 23; “I well remember . . . ” in M. Howard, Recollections of a Maryland Confederate Soldier and Staff Officer Under Johnston, Jackson and Lee (Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1914), p. 307; “[We] shared our food . . . ” in C. B. Flood, Lee: The Last Years (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), p. 18.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Great factoids and pics! Man, it's amazing to get into the 19th century mindset. Makes me wonder what we think we know or don't know at all:)