photo by Rusty Clark
One of my childhood heroes lost her job last week, despite my efforts to help her out. Elsie the Cow deserved a better fate.
The Borden Dairy Co. filed for bankruptcy protection on Jan. 5, less than two months after its larger rival Dean Foods did the same thing. The two Dallas-based companies ranked first and second in the industry, which has been hobbled by declining milk consumption and other shifts in consumer tastes.
Dean Foods is home to some well-known brands including Land O’Lakes, but it has nothing – or, rather, nobody – to compare to Elsie. Elsie has been Borden’s mascot since 1936. She is an octogenarian now, but we baby boomers remember her in her prime. Elsie inspired us to drink our recommended three to four cups of milk per day, which was essential if we were going to become sports stars or beat the Russians to the moon. Even our moms turned to Elsie for advice on such weighty matters as what to whip up in a hurry when luncheon plans went awry.
Our mothers probably admired Elsie as much as we did. Or maybe they envied her. Elsie held down a job that made her famous, even as she ran a family that included four offspring (Beulah and Beauregard, later joined by twins Larabee and Lobelia) and a tycoon husband, Elmer, who invented the glue that we carried to school in our book bags. The glue was sold under the Borden label back then. We knew Elmer invented the glue, because otherwise they wouldn’t have called it Elmer’s glue, would they? Nobody told us kids that there might be a connection between glue manufacture and superannuated dairy cows.
Elsie was the first celebrity I ever met in the flesh. I believe it happened in the summer of 1960, when the Freedomland U.S.A. amusement park opened in the Bronx, where my family lived. Freedomland was going to be the East Coast answer to Disneyland. I was not quite 3 years old at the time, so my memories of that day are brief and fragmentary. I remember watching the firemen battle the Great Chicago Fire, and riding the train that carried us from Chicago to San Francisco. But mostly I remember meeting Elsie, who was chewing her cud contentedly in her “boudoir.” Elsie was generous with her time during this meet-and-greet. Sadly, this was about half a century before we had selfies. An Elsie selfie would have had a nice ring to it.
Freedomland only lasted a few years. It turned out that the Disneyland concept did not translate very well to the Northeast and its harsh winters. The site later became a massive apartment complex, Co-op City, where my family moved in 1969. I never forgot that I first came to that place when it was Freedomland and that I got to meet Elsie. Meanwhile, Elsie skillfully navigated the shifting tides of show business. She got another gig across town at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, reprising a role she had held as an ingenue at the 1939 World’s Fair.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that as Elsie sauntered into old age with a lower public profile, Borden and the rest of the dairy industry fell into a long decline. Since 1975, the amount of milk Americans consume per capita has fallen more than 40%. Even consumers who haven’t given up milk altogether supplement it with plant-based alternatives. According to a survey from Dairy Management Inc., about 44% of Americans purchased both dairy and plant-based milk substitutes in 2019. Now people drink “milk” made from soy, which is a sad substitute for people who can’t handle the real stuff; almond, which is just wrong; and Heaven-only-knows what else. I tried coconut milk one time and couldn’t choke it down. I still drink a glass of milk – the kind from cows – with breakfast every day.
As a pundit on matters of public policy, as well as a lifelong Elsie fanboy, I tried to help. Back in 2009, in one of the earliest installments of this blog, I proposed that the government legalize marijuana and outlaw the possession, sale and consumption of milk. I observed that the marijuana business, illegal everywhere at the time, was thriving. Meanwhile, the dairy industry struggled despite all manner of government efforts to support it. I reasoned that if the government wanted to discourage marijuana consumption and encourage milk consumption, the obvious solution was to flip its approach to the two.
I failed. Today marijuana is legal in an increasing number of places, including Canada, where they don’t have our ridiculous conflict between federal and state (or in their case, provincial) law. Still, milk consumption is declining north of the border, too. The problem may be that nobody has outlawed milk yet, though the scolds who warn that it is bad for you are doing their best. On the bright side: Anyone who hands a human baby a bottle containing cow’s milk might get arrested nowadays.
Elsie has made no public comment on Borden’s bankruptcy. I understand she is staying at an undisclosed location to protect her privacy, but I hope she can make a comeback once Borden sorts itself out. We’re not going to keep the Russians at bay if we drink ersatz milk made from stuff we feed cows, rather than by the cows themselves. Elsie would strongly advise against it.