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The Sweet Story of Condensed Milk

This nineteenth-century industrial product became a military staple and a critical part of local food culture around the world.

Gail Borden was among the first to produce it commercially in the US in the 1850s. Borden himself was a serial entrepreneur, with as many misses as hits, but the timing for the milk was right. As Joe B. Frantz describes it in his essay on Borden’s business career, “When in 1858 Frank Leslie exposed the ‘fresh’ milk producers in New York for selling swill, Borden, scenting opportunity, ran the first newspaper advertisement stating that his milk was not only pure but would keep indefinitely.”

The business wasn’t an immediate success, notes Frantz. As a new enterprise, it “suffered the pangs of slow growth until 1861, when during one noon hour a customer walked in and after asking a few questions, announced that he wanted 500 pounds of condensed milk for the United States Army.” Soldiers fighting in the Southern theaters of the American Civil War were soon being nourished with canned, condensed milk.

Borden became a military supplier, and condensed milk became known to thousands of soldiers. With its high sugar content, it packed a real caloric wallop in a small can. (It would be in servicemen’s ration packs again in the First World war). Condensed milk (usually prefaced with the word “sweetened”) soon became a standard product on grocery shelves in the United States. In Europe, its production was associated with the Anglo-Swiss milk company, a forerunner of Nestlé, which led to it being referred to as “Swiss Milk” in English.

In the early part of the twentieth century, condensed (and evaporated) milk were common in recipes for home-made baby formula. In the days where milk safety was a real public health issue (and children died from tainted fresh milk), the option of mixing up canned milk may have seemed a safer choice, even as some doctors pointed out that— despite its boosters’ claims—it was still often bacteria-laden.

(These old recipes were also not nutritionally ideal for infants. During shortages of commercial baby formula powder in recent years, they started circulating online as alternatives, leading doctors to issue warnings against feeding babies condensed milk.)