The Story of the Condensed Milk

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Condensed milk is usually cow milk sweetened with sugar, which increases its shelf life by preventing the growth of microorganisms. Drinking milk was a significant health risk before the 19th century. In the United States, condensed milk only appeared in 1853, produced by a dairy farmer named Gail Borden Jr. Prof Ashoka tells us about its invention, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

Condensed milk is cow’s milk from which water has been removed. It is usually sweetened with sugar, which increases its shelf life by preventing the growth of microorganisms. Drinking milk was a significant health risk before the 19th century. Milk straight from the cow spoiled within hours during the summer and caused diseases known as the milk-sick, milk poison, the slows, the trembles, and the milk evil.

To combat these diseases, Frenchman Nicolas Appert condensed milk for the first time, in 1820. In the United States, condensed milk only appeared in 1853, produced by a dairy farmer named Gail Borden Jr.

In 1852, Borden was returning, by sea, from a trip to England when the cows in the ship’s hold became too seasick to be milked and because of this, an immigrant infant died. Borden was devastated by the death and began trying to preserve raw milk. Eventually, he was inspired by the airtight vacuum pan used by the Shakers, a religious group, to condense fruit juice, and was able to reduce milk without scorching or curdling it. His first condensed milk lasted three days without spoiling.

Borden was granted a patent for sweetened, condensed milk in 1856. But the product was not well received by the public who were used to watered-down milk, with chalk added for whiteness and molasses for creaminess. They complained about the appearance and taste of condensed milk. Borden’s original product, which was made from skimmed milk and lacked nutrients, was even blamed for contributing to a contemporary rickets epidemic in children.

As a result, Borden’s first two factories failed and only the third, in Wassaic, New York, produced a usable product that was long lasting and needed no refrigeration. His business was unexpectedly helped by a piece of investigative journalism in Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The report exposed the disturbing fact that competing fresh milk suppliers were feeding New York cows on distillery mash to reduce costs.

By 1858, Borden’s milk, sold as the Eagle Brand, had gained a reputation for purity, durability, and economy. Demand was also driven by the American Civil War. The U.S. government ordered huge amounts of condensed milk as a field ration for Union soldiers during the war. Soldiers returning home then spread the word and condensed milk became a major industry by the late 1860s.

Serialised from the book, Popular Triumphs of Human Innovation in Everyday Life, by Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Photos from the Internet

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.