Gail Borden: Philanthropist and Inventor

Originally written by Carl White.

As a young child, I remember my mother using Gail Borden’s Condensed Milk in her coffee. It had the very distinctive “Elsie the Cow” on the label. I believe she also gave it to me as a baby for nutrition. To this day, I hate the taste of condensed milk.


Gail Borden was born in Norwich NY on November 9, 1801. His father, Gail Borden Jr, was a pioneer and landowner. His mother, Philadelphia Borden, died from yellow fever at the age of 48. Gail moved in 1816 and spent his youth in Kentucky and Indiana, where he studied land surveying. Then he moved to Mississippi in 1822, where he met his wife, Penelope Mercer. They were married in 1828. Borden became County Surveyor and a teacher. In 1829, they moved to Texas, where Gail surveyed Houston and Galveston. He became head of the Land Office there. Borden collaborated on drawing the first contour map of Texas in 1835.

Gail and his brother started to publish a newspaper called the Telegraph and Texas Register. Borden was very fair and objective in his writing.  The paper became an important source of public documents and history. Despite fleeing to Nashville when Mexican soldiers advanced into Texas, the soldiers caught up with the Bordens and threw their typewriter into a Bayou. This ended the newspaper.


Gail Borden was a very gifted man, who dabbled in a lot of different areas. Borden became very interested in food concentration. Spending time on the frontier, he realized food had to be preserved and concentrated in a way that ensured nutrition. He began experimenting with meat and invented a “meat biscuit,” which contained a beef extract. This proved to be a popular staple in the West; the Gold Rush Forty-niners and Civil War soldiers found it to be a suitable food ration. In 1851, Borden won a Gold Medal at the Great Council Exhibit at the London World’s Fair.  He also experimented with coffee, tea, and cocoa.

Borden was able to make concentrates from apples, currants, and grapes. On his way home from the World’s Fair, two cows and several children died from drinking contaminated milk. Borden decided to turn his attention to solving this problem. In 1856, several years before the Civil War started, he invented condensed milk. This proved to be a safe way to preserve milk for consumption. He moved back to the New York area and was able to get financing from Greenwich’s own Jeremiah Milbank, whom he had met on a train. Together they founded the New York Condensed Milk Company. Later, in 1899 it was renamed the Borden Milk Company. Borden was able to construct condensories in Connecticut, New York, Maine, and Illinois. In 1856, he received British and US Patents for his invention.


In later years, Borden returned to Texas, where he supported the poorly-paid, minorities, and teachers. He became a well-known philanthropist, and he helped organize a school for African-Americans. Borden also helped build 6 new churches. He died in Borden, Texas, in 1874, and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York.

Borden’s was once the largest US producer of dairy and pasta products. He also sold snacks, processed cheese, jams, jellies, and ice cream. Borden’s consumer products division sold wallpaper, adhesives, plastics, and resins. The company sold Elmer’s Glue and Krazy Glue. The Borden Brand eventually became the Eagle Brand and sold such labels as Mott’s and Cremora. Smucker’s acquired Eagle Brands in 2007.

Gail Borden invented a lot of useful products. Throughout his life, he always respected the science. He was a very reputable man. We owe a great deal of gratitude to Mr. Borden.


Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth ed, Q2 2015

Hutchinson Encyclopedia of Biography, Helicon Publishing Limited, 2000


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