Smithsonian Acquires Borden World’s Fair Materials

Advertising Icon “Elsie, the Cow” Visits National Museum of American History
June 5, 2007
In a special ceremony today, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History received a collection of personal memorabilia documenting the Borden Company’s participation in the 1939 New York World’s Fair on the occasion of Borden’s 150th anniversary. The donation includes yearbooks, photographs, personal scrapbooks and other materials. A selection of the Borden-related collection will be on temporary display in the museum’s “Treasures of American History” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum beginning July 12.

"Treasures of American History" closed April 13, 2008.  For information about the Museum's reopening, go to our renovation page.

Jim Cavanaugh, Chester Steen and Herbert Petree were among the 60 “Borden Boys”— young agriculture and dairy college students recruited to handle the 150 cows in the Borden pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, “The Dairy World of Tomorrow.” The exhibit was designed as a showcase for the most modern, sanitary methods used in the dairy industry. These young men cared for the animals, kept careful statistics on milk production and demonstrated dairy operations to the public. Today, the three men once again accompanied “Elsie, the cow” to a major event, this time in the nation’s capital.

“Back then, Elsie was a sensation, and we knew we were a part of something special and wanted to preserve our memories,” said Cavanaugh, who is credited with selecting the first “real” Elsie after visitors to the World’s Fair inquired as to which of the cows was the one featured in the company’s advertisements.

“Borden and Elsie not only played major roles in popular culture and advertising in American history, but they also reflect the importance of the development of the dairy industry,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the National Museum of American History. “We’re pleased that the personal memorabilia of the ‘Borden Boys’ will be preserved in the museum’s Archives Center.”

At the World’s Fair, Borden soon discovered that—although impressed with the technology on display—most visitors really wanted to know which animal was Elsie, a fictional cow featured in the company’s recent advertisements. An especially sweet-dispositioned Jersey was swiftly identified as Elsie and introduced to the public. She became the focus of the exhibit, where she and her calf Beulah lived in a luxury stall with framed “portraits” of her ancestors on the wall. Due to her immense popularity at the fair, the Borden Company made Elsie its primary advertising icon, a role she still plays today.

The Borden materials will be added to the museum’s archives center collections, supplementing existing collections related to the 1939 World’s Fair as well as over all advertising history.

Gail Borden created the Borden brand in 1857, when he established the nation’s first milk condensery in Burrville, Conn. Artist David William Reid introduced Elsie in the late 1930s as part of a project to find a trademark animal for Borden. Through a licensing agreement in 1997, Elsie and Borden Cheese became part of the Dairy Farmers of America. DFA is the nation’s largest producer-owned dairy marketing cooperative and food company.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. Documenting the American experience from Colonial times to the present, the museum looks at growth and change in the United States. The museum is closed for major renovations and will re-open in summer 2008. For information about the museum, please visit http://americanhistory.si.edu or call Smithsonian Information at (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).