“Thou shalt not abuse nor worry thy cow…”
Milk is good for a lot of things: feeding babies, pouring over cereal, giving people mustaches…but it is REALLY good at going bad. Raw milk only keeps for a couple of hours at room temperature before it starts to spoil, and once it takes that turn, drinking it is a very dicey proposition. So for the 6,000+ years that humans have been drinking animal milk, we’ve also been trying to find ways to ingest it before it’s rotten enough to make us sick.
First came a fermented milk product that was something like yogurt. Later, people figured out how to make cheese (Hurrah!), and after that, butter churns started chugging along. These transformations stabilized some of the nutrients of fresh milk and gave folks more access to dairy, but milk in its original state was still an extremely fragile commodity.
By 1795, canning maniac Nicolas Appert had developed a technique for preserving milk in its liquid state. This involved boiling the milk, which reduced it to one-third of its original volume, putting it in a glass jar, corking it, and heating it again. This produced milk which tasted terrible, and had few remaining nutrients, but, hey, it lasted quite a while! It was a step in the right direction.
In the mid-19th century, things had reached the curdling point. Raw milk was still a dangerous food that spoiled really quickly. It was hard to transport safely. It turned into a glass of germs within hours, yet people were being told to feed it to the youngest, most vulnerable members of the population. It was a recipe for disaster! Compounding the problem, several distilleries in NYC hatched a money-making scheme by which they fed their spent grain to secret dairy cows kept in nearby barns. So in addition to the regular dangers of raw milk, we add undernourished, diseased cows and unclean, overcrowded conditions. The milk these cows gave was so bad (and blue!) that it had to be disguised with the addition of chalk and sweeteners.
The milk wasn’t just gross, it was killing people. Especially kids.
With pasteurization still a few years off, and kids dying by the thousands, the race was on to create a preserved milk that was shelf-stable and pure. That’s where Gail Borden comes in. In 1851, he was coming home to the U.S. on a ship from the London Exhibition, where he had been drumming up enthusiasm for his latest invention “meat biscuits.” (I would never lie to you.) The ship had a couple of cows to make milk for the passengers. The cows got sick. The milk was contaminated. The kids who drank it died.
That was it for Mr. Borden. Meat biscuits be damned, he had a new problem to solve. He spent the next few years experimenting with condensing milk in a vacuum, removing 60% of the water content, and adding sugar to prolong the shelf-life. He eventually earned the patent for his innovations in 1856. Around this time, he also formally abandoned the meat biscuit…which was about as popular as you might expect.
Borden’s first two milk factories were a flop, but he did something super important during these early, milk-filled years. He wrote the “Dairyman’s Ten Commandments” which was a set of rules farmers needed to follow if they wanted to sell him their milk. This document was filled with great advice: Always wash udders before milking! Keep barns swept clean! Scald and dry strainers morning and night! It also reads as a love letter to cows, “Thou shalt not abuse nor worry thy cow–thou nor thy maid servant, nor thy dog, nor thy mischievous boy who drives her up, but thou shalt at all times treat her with gentleness and allow no one to molest or make her afraid…” It was widely adopted among dairy farmers, and many of the rules within are followed to this day.
The milk Commandments were improving safety at dairies, and in 1858, Borden’s third condensed milk factory proved to be the charm. The kinks had been ironed out. He had a great partner/investor. He was now shipping safe, stable milk that needed no refrigeration. (It stayed fresh for over 2 years!!!) Eagle Brand, as his milk was called, was gaining a reputation for being clean and pure. Kids who drank it did not die.
Then the Civil War began, and keeping the soldiers fed was a nightmare. They were sustaining themselves mainly on hardtack and salt meat. Morale was terrible. The U.S. government placed an enormous order for Borden’s condensed milk, and used it–not as an everyday ration–but as a celebratory treat for the soldiers. The canned milk also got a lot of use in military hospitals, where it was mixed with brandy or whiskey as a tonic for fever. In time, soldiers could buy their own sweetened condensed milk at a cost of 50 to 80 cents per can. That was a lot of money, so many soldiers wrote to relatives, asking them to “send condensed milk!!!” Eagle Brand milk was such a success that the company could not keep up with demand.
As sweetened condensed milk made its mark on the US, it was also picking up steam globally. A Swiss company began making it for most of Europe. A Dutch milk company moved into Hong Kong and launched the Longevity brand. Wars and colonialism spread canned milk just about everywhere. It was safe, reliable, and delicious at a time when raw milk was anything but.
Eventually (although it took WAY too long) pasteurization became the norm, and milk’s safety was less of a concern. For the first time, sweetened condensed milk had to work to stay relevant. “It doesn’t kill kids!” was no longer a unique selling point. Luckily, the product was also completely delicious, so it had a lot of fans. Eagle Brand held recipe contests where they paid $25 for the tasty ideas of homemakers. Ads touted a million ways to use sweetened condensed milk, often with the tag “no added sugar–which is hilarious, because let’s be real: it’s a can of sugar. Around the globe, sweetened condensed milk found its way into drinks and desserts and dinners, much to the delight of pretty much everyone.
In closing, I’ll just say that if you’re looking to have a sweetened condensed milk revival at your house, here are some bright ideas, brought to you by my insta pals: Key Lime Pie. Fudge. Flan. Vietnamese Iced Coffee. Halo Halo. Fruit Dip. Spanish Lattes. Hot Chocolate. French Toast. Banana Pudding. 7 Layer Bars. Smoothies. Carnitas. Shave Ice…