No. 3086: ELSIE AND ELMER

by Andy Boyd

Click here for audio of Episode 3086

Today, a successful couple parts ways. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A survey taken in the 1940s showed that virtually every American knew her name. Sweet. Charming. She embodied a wholesomeness that spoke to Americans of the time. And that was important, because the product she represented had a history of carrying disease. The product? Milk. And the spokesperson? Elsie the cow.

Pasteurization had brought milk-spread disease from fresh milk under control, but public perceptions change slowly. At the forefront of changing these perceptions was the Borden Company, a successful producer of canned milk seeking to build a new market for fresh. Elsie was introduced in 1936. With big brown eyes, a kind face, a necklace of daisies and an apron, she was an idealized homemaker of the 1930s – even while maintaining her very clear identity as a cow.

elise
Commemorative tile on the ground near the Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows park. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

To further her image as homemaker, Borden soon introduced a husband, Elmer, and somewhat later two children. Together they were depicted as a happy patriarchal family. Then, in 1947, things changed.

For years, the Borden company had been working on developing glue. The main protein in milk is casein, which when properly processed forms a good, odorless bonding agent. You can make a simple version at home with ingredients found in your kitchen. Borden’s chemists developed a variant of the glue they thought consumers would love.

Management knew that building a better mousetrap doesn’t ensure that people will beat a path to your door to buy it. They needed a good spokesperson for the new product. Who better, they thought, than the already well-liked Elmer? Thus was born Elmer’s Glue-all.

Elmer’s remains a staple in school classrooms and households, though the array of adhesives on the market has given consumers many more choices. And the casein in milk has been replaced by a synthetic polymer. But some things don’t change. Consumers complained about the initial jar – a jar made of glass with a screw-top and an attached popsicle stick applicator. Almost immediately, new packaging was introduced: a resealable orange plastic cap of a design Elmer’s users now take for granted. Above all, Elmer the bull’s smiling face still appears on a wide array adhesive products.

products
Photo Credit: E.A. Boyd

But what of Elsie? By the end of the sixties Elsie’s persona was retired as Borden grappled but failed to keep pace with the times. In 2001 Borden closed its food division, and by 2004 Borden Chemicals, the last remnant of a once giant industrial conglomerate, was sold and renamed.

But the Borden brand, if not the original company, lives on in dairy products, still evoking the wholesomeness consumers expect. And Elsie’s no longer in retirement, with her face once again gracing cans and containers of milk – though I don’t suspect she and Elmer will be getting back together again.

product
Photo Credit: E.A. Boyd

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

While the original Borden company ceased to exist in 2004, the Borden Milk Products company, formed in 2000, now licenses the Borden name and the image of Elsie. Eagle Brand Condensed Milk, owned by the J.M. Smucker company, also licenses Elsie’s image. Elmer’s image is owned by the Elmer’s Products company. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borden_Milk_Products, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eagle_Brand, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elmer%27s_Products. Accessed September 15, 2016.

Borden (Company). From the Wikipedia website: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borden_(company). Accessed September 15, 2016.

Elmer’s. From the America’s Greatest Brands website: http://www.americasgreatestbrands.com/volume8/assets/AGB%20pdfs/AGB%20Elmers.pdf. Accessed September 15, 2016.

K. Kelly. Elmer’s Glue: The Surprising Story. From the America Comes Alive website: http://americacomesalive.com/2015/10/19/elmers-glue-the-surprising-story/#.V9rIfq2SYfV. Accessed September 15, 2016.

K. Kelly. Elsie the Cow, Borden Marketing Mascot. From the America Comes Alive website: http://americacomesalive.com/2015/11/01/elsie-the-cow-borden-marketing-mascot/#.V9rI562SYfX. Accessed September 15, 2016.

This episode was first aired on September 22, 2016