American generations from the Greatest to Baby Boomers and later have been weaned on any number of iconic national symbols as part of their growing experience. Many of these treasures are buried deep within the psyches of individuals, sustaining and enhancing innate emotional, commercial, and even political viewpoints. Two of these have come into stark relief in the past few weeks.
The Borden Dairy company was founded in 1857 by Gail Borden Jr., in Connecticut. Even through its early years, Borden experienced a somewhat volatile corporate existence. However, in 1936, through the genius of some advertising people, Borden introduced Elsie the Cow as a symbol of its dairy products. The Elsie/Borden dyad was woven into our lives and persisted as a latent representation of American values and healthy consumption. Later, in 1947, Borden introduced Elmer the Bull, Elsie’s mate, representative of its glue division. Although seemingly disparate products, the primary ingredient in the glue was casein, a protein in dairy milk. For many decades these two bovine idols were intimate parts of dairy milk consumption, as well as powerful symbols for parents and children.
With Elsie on the milk container on the breakfast table and Elmer on the white plastic tube of glue, American families shared a common sense of satisfaction and security. No discussion was necessary in any household to appreciate the experience, nor were school lessons required to bolster a universal understanding of the importance of these two icons.
Borden is presently headquartered in Dallas, having undergone a series of corporate devolutions, especially in 1995, when it was the subject of a leveraged buyout. Over the last two decades, dairy milk consumption in the nation has declined while, at the same time, a number of substitutes–from almond to soy to wheat–have replaced a share of that consumption.
Not one mention was made of the fate of Elsie.
The company struggled financially, arriving most recently at a position being characterized as “overleveraged” or “overextended.” This is merely the jargon of corporatists, and translates into being broke, unable to pay the bills, particularly returns on shares to investors. Borden filed for bankruptcy protection on January 6, 2020. Its corporate leaders cited the declining consumption of dairy milk and its substitutes as factors, as well as, inexplicably, the declining number of dairy farms in the United States. Not one mention was made of the fate of Elsie. In contrast, Elmer lucked into a different set of corporate parents, who have better financially managed that family, continuing Elmer’s mission.
The failure of Elsie’s corporate stewards to mention the future prospects of the beloved bovine is mute testimony to the insensitivity of Borden to its legions of customers with affection for the smiling cow. There’s a resonance, an echo of “Charlie on the MTA”: her fate may still be unlearned but to many not forgotten, even if never to return.
In Virginia, a bill has been introduced in the General Assembly to define milk as “lacteal secretion” from “healthy hooved animals” including cows, yak (or yaks, as the case may be), sheep, goats, buffalo (or buffalos), deer, reindeer, moose, horses, and donkeys. It is unclear how this definition might affect the labeling of such products. Nor does the legislation address the possible mixing of such lacteal secretions, e.g. yak and donkey milk. Surely, American industry will compose euphemistic jargon to make any labeling issues inconsequential. Whether Elise’s profile could or would appear on the carton of such a concoction remains open. Rebranding milk as lacteal secretion from a variety of healthy hooved animals may be a construct beyond earlier generations and fit, perhaps, only for younger ones.