In the 1930s, the dairy industry saw publicized price wars between farmers and dairy processors that caused larger dairies to be portrayed unfavorably. The cartoon Elsie was created by Borden’s advertising agency in 1936 to help make the brand more friendly and approachable to the public. The company first started advertising in medical journals, which featured a variety of cartoon cows with several different names, including Mrs. Blossom, Bessie, Clara and Elsie. A typical ad showed a cow and calf talking in a milk barn.
Calf: “Mama, I think I see a germ!”
Cow: “Mercy, child – run quick for the Borden Inspector!”
Doctors loved the ads and inundated the company with requests for reprints to hang in their office waiting rooms. While the medical campaign continued, Borden tested the ads in a few New York newspapers. In 1938, Borden was sponsoring network news commentator Rush Hughes. A radio copywriter who was intrigued by the medical journal ads prepared a commercial that delighted Hughes, so he read it himself on air. It made reference to the following letter:
“Dear Mama: I’m so excited I can hardly chew. We girls are sending our milk to Borden’s now! Love, Elsie.”
The commercial amused Hughes’ listeners, and fan mail began pouring in addressed not to him but to Elsie. Elsie became the spokescow for Borden forever after.
Then, the birth of the live Elsie occurred at the 1939 World’s Fair. At this point in time, Elsie had already appeared in national consumer magazines and on the Borden bottle cap. As the company was preparing for an exhibit at the World’s Fair, it planned for Elsie to be a part of the exhibit but not the focal point. Borden would debut a scientifically important “rotolactor,” a futuristic merry-go-round milking machine with live cows on top. There were 150 Jersey cows sent to the fair to participate in the rotolactor. Seven hostesses were trained to answer every scientific question about the rotolactor and keep logs of the questions most often asked. At the first month’s end, the tally was: 20 percent about the rotolactor; 20 percent about the location of the restrooms; 60 percent about which of the 150 cows was Elsie.
Elsie’s popularity was overwhelmingly evident, and Borden decided it needed to produce a real Elsie. One cow stood out from the others – she seemed to make eye contact and have a real personality. That cow was a seven-year-old that had been born in Brookfield, Massachusetts with the original name “You’ll Do Lobelia.” For the rest of the season, this cow, dressed in an embroidered green blanket, was put alone on the rotolactor twice a day for everyone to see – and millions did.
Elsie then went on to appear at numerous public events, in movies, magazines and more. During the 1940 season, Elsie outdrew in attendance every other World’s Fair exhibit. In the 40s, she made personal appearance tours that helped sell $10 million in U.S. War Bonds, prompting a thank-you note from the Secretary of Treasury. Throughout the years, she also earned honorary university degrees such as Doctor of Bovinity, Doctor of Human Kindness and Doctor of Ecownomics. It is estimated that in the height of her popularity, more people recognized Elsie than they did the President!
Today, Elsie is still the friendly, approachable mom who represents family togetherness, joy, optimism and nostalgia. You can see her face on all Borden packaging in the dairy aisle and across Borden marketing materials.