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Borden’s Declares Bankruptcy. And Elsie the Cow Is Free.

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  • by Diana O. Potter

Elsie the Cow’s generations of faithful service as the advertising mascot for the giant Borden Dairy Company are finally over. And so is the company.

Founded in Dallas, TX, 160 years ago, Borden has long used Elsie the Cow, wearing a classically tatty housewife apron, as the “warm, approachable mom” who stood for keeping children healthy by giving them plenty of whole milk to drink.

And Borden’s? Declaring bankruptcy in January 2020 thanks to the seemingly unstoppable growth of non-dairy milk alternatives, Borden is the second dairy empire in just a few months to do so: Dean Foods went bankrupt in November 2019.

In Borden’s case, an unsustainable debt load due to declining sales and falling profits made bankruptcy inevitable. With 1) the ever-increasing popularity of plant-based versions of traditional and less healthy foods, including once-iconic dairy products like Borden’s milk, and 2) healthcare institutions’ changing view with regard to milk’s health benefits, the dairy industry has seen profits plummet.

Whole Milk a Staple for Our Youngest Kids? Doctors: Not So Fast

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) and other healthcare organizations spoke out strongly in September 2019 when it was announced that the forthcoming new edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans would retain the recommendation of whole milk for very young children. This would be in direct opposition to the fast-emerging view of healthcare professionals that the fat in whole milk is a detriment to young children’s health. (The controversy continues: To learn more, read VEGWORLD’s “Dairy Do, or Dairy Don’t, for Very Young Children?”)

Elsie Reclaims Her Identity — as a Cow with Quite a Past

At last, Elsie the Cow can finally take off her ruffly ‘50s apron and rejoin the herd, And she has a remarkable story to share with them.

Created by Borden’s advertising agency in 1936 to give their milk an endearing personality (who doesn’t love Mom?), Elsie was a print character appearing on milk bottlecaps and in magazine ads before graduating to radio commercials, the height of advertising power at the time. One radio announcer began receiving more fan mail for Elsie than for him!

But Elsie has even more to brag about: In a Borden exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, 150 Jersey cows were sent to demonstrate what sounds like a demonic milking device called the rototactor — a merry-go-round milking machine with live cows on top! Thankfully, the machine failed to impress fairgoers. But everyone wanted to know which cow was Elsie!

That did it. Elsie had to be a real cow. From the 150 cows at the fair, Borden selected one who seemed to stand out from the others, making eye contact and appearing to have a personality. You’ll love her real name: You’ll Do Lobelia.

And she did very well, indeed, outdrawing every other World’s Fair exhibit during the 1940 season and becoming a major personality on personal appearance tours selling US War Bonds.

Elsie Lives On

With Borden gone, I like to imagine Elsie retired to a cow sanctuary, run by dedicated animal lovers, and ending her days as the star of the herd. I see her ruminating about her past accomplishments — but also learning from her bovine mates about the drop in animal cruelty that is sparing many cattle from the savagery of animal agriculture methods.

I like to think she’s happy being just a cow munching on grass, as plant-based as you can get.

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