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, pioneered the development of condensed milk. The Connecticut company’s innovative method of transporting and storing milk without refrigeration helped feed the troops in the Union Army.

Elsie the Cow

Leading up to the World’s Fair, Borden wanted 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.” She had a well-known face by then, but the company didn’t plan for her to star 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 belonged to a herd of 150 Jersey cows sent to the fair. Twice a day the herd would  walk through the milking room and get 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.

A Star Is Born

The eager publicists began combing through the herd, looking for a girl with just the right look. 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. They rechristened her Elsie, and moved her 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.  She got VIP treatment as she made stops in each town. 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. She then returned to her East Coast roots.

Elsie’s star turn was short lived, however. She died in 1941, and a host of new Elsies supplanted her. The company continued to use those Elsies to promote the Borden brand, with campaigns and contests featuring her and her growing family. Her husband, Elmer the bull, served as mascot for Borden’s chemical division, which named Elmer’s Glue after him. They had calves, Beulah and Beauregard and twins, Larabee and Lobelia after the original Elsie.

The Borden Elsie the Cow cartoon ranks as one of the most memorable product promotions of the last century. Elsie memorabilia now featured in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

This story last updated in 2021.

Images: World’s Fair ticket By Woodmiser – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54482496. Elsie logo By Unknown author – Cropped from this image, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=108158436.

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