Business and Labor

Elsie the Cow – The Massachusetts Starlet Who Brought a Cartoon to Life

At the 1939 World’s Fair, Massachusetts launched a celebrity onto the world’s stage. She had beautiful brown eyes, gorgeous hair, a sultry walk and horns. She was Elsie the Cow, spokescow for the Borden Dairy Company.

Elsie the Cow has her portrait made at the 1939 World's Fair (New York Public Library)

Elsie the Cow has her portrait made at the 1939 World’s Fair (New York Public Library)

Borden, which started operation in 1857, was a pioneer in developing condensed milk. The Connecticut company’s innovative method of transporting and storing milk without refrigeration helped feed the troops in the Union Army.

Leading up to the World’s Fair, Borden was looking for a way to showcase its new rotolactator milking machine. The company in 1936 had created a cartoon cow advertisement, named Elsie, to encourage the public to ‘enjoy a nice glass of milk.’ Her face was widely known, but she wasn’t originally planned to have a starring role at the fair.

No, like many starlets the real Elsie took a convoluted path to fame. Born in Brookfield, Mass. with the unlikely moniker “You’ll Do Lobelia,” she started out as a bit player in Borden’s World’s Fair pageant. She was one of 150 Jersey cows sent to the fair. Twice a day the herd would be brought through the milking room and milked on the rotolactator machinery.

Borden’s PR firm, always looking for ways to increase the company’s exposure, began reviewing the questions submitted by the crowds. Which cow was Elsie, was an oft-repeated question. There was no Elsie, of course, but there soon would be.

The eager publicists began combing through the herd, looking for a girl with just the right look, and they found it in the beautiful You’ll Do Lobelia. More than just beauty, they noticed she actually seemed to like people, to make eye contact. And at that moment, a star was born. She was rechristened Elsie, and moved front and center in the exhibit. She was photographed in her trademark blanket, taken around the fair to highlight other events and sat for a portrait by Walter Early, who drew the first Elsie the Cow cartoon.

Elsie the Cow (New York Public Library)

Elsie the Cow (New York Public Library)

By the time the fair closed, Elsie was one of the most popular and most photographed exhibits at the event. But the publicity didn’t stop there. Borden sent Elsie on a cross-country tour via railroad. With a pen designed to look like a four-poster bed, she delighted crowds as she made stops in towns where she was treated like a VIP. When she reached the West Coast, Elsie even made a cameo in the film ‘Little Men,’ playing Elsie the Moo Girl of the World’s Fair before returning back to her East Coast roots.

Elsie’s star turn was short lived, however. She died in 1941, and was supplanted by a host of new Elsies. The Borden Elsie the Cow cartoon ranks as one of the most memorable product promotions of the last century, with Elsie memorabilia now featured in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

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