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America's Favorite Spokescow

Apr 12, 2009 12:57 PM | 4 comments

I can't help it; the thought of a cow with an office and a secretary makes me laugh.

I've had a copy of this photograph displayed on my desk since I first stumbled upon it in our files, often wondering about the story behind it.  After a particularly long day of teaching, I decided to indulge in a little research of my own. 

Turns out, we've just interrupted Elsie the Cow, the world famous mascot for Borden Milk Products, hard at work.  One can only imagine what Elsie is dictating.  Perhaps a thank you note to a fan who saw her cameo in the feature film Little Men (note that the secretary keeps a copy of the novel on her desk); a new recipe featuring a Borden product; or a quick note to her famous husband, Elmer.  

We've credited this photograph to a Borden's milk distribution plant on 3rd Avenue and Dean Street.  While I know a distribution plant existed at that location, I haven't found any other evidence suggesting Elsie conducted a photo shoot there.  Either way, this photograph was probably a national publicity stunt.  As a national spokescow, Elsie frequently appeared in print ads, radio and television spots, and, of course, on Borden products. 

The original Elsie spokescow was the cartoon drawing we still recognize today.  The "live" Elsie came into being at the 1939 World's Fair in Queens. Borden's exhibit on the Dairy of the Future was failing to earn the popularity it hoped for.  So they announced that Elsie herself would also be present.  Although Borden staff were trained to answer in-depth questions about new technology in the dairy industry, the vast majority of the questions had to do with Elsie. 

Thanks to this appearance, the live Elsie became a permanent fixture for Borden.  Our collection has a second picture showing her celebrating her 10th birthday at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan.  Obviously, many cows have played Elsie, but Borden does not differentiate between them.  To the public, Elsie is the same friendly face that first appeared at the World's Fair.

Incidentally, my research (yes, I did get a little carried away) also led me to discover that Elsie's dairy products had a strong presence here in Brooklyn.  Our collection holds several photographs highlighting the work of Borden plants that once operated here, including the development of new delivery vehicles, the use of women workers during wartime, and a driver's strike that left baby booming families without their daily milk needs.

Although Borden no longer operates locally in Brooklyn, Elsie has maintained her national stardom.  She continues to travel the country in her "cowdillac," and I'm hopeful she'll grace us with an appearance again soon.


4/12/2009 6:42:56 PM #

Elsie looks to me like a Jersey cow. I'm wondering if you came across any information on her breed or her origins in your research. While I was Googling around looking for breed information I came across this:
Something that doesn't happen too often in Brooklyn these days.


4/14/2009 11:50:37 AM #

Yes, that's right, Joy.  Elsie was, and still is, a Jersey cow.  The first Elsie was originally named "You'll Do, Lobelia" (quite a name) and was born at Elm Hill Farm in Massachusetts.  Borden was using Jersey cows at the World's Fair, and "You'll Do, Lobelia" just happened to be the lucky cow picked out of the herd to be Elsie.  

Borden lucked out too.  The Jersey cow is one of the most docile and gentle of breeds - which leads to good, family friendly mascots.

And, as a last note, "You'll Do, Lobelia" came to her final resting place in 1941 in Plainsboro, NJ.  Even her headstone proudly identifies her as a "pure bred Jersey."


4/16/2009 1:39:50 PM #

A very mooving article.


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