Mid-Atlantic Popular &
American Culture Association

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Milking It For All It’s Worth: American Fluid Milk and Packaging, 1850–1950


In his forward to a 1953 Newcomen Society publication entitled Gail Borden and His Heritage Since 1857, Borden Company board member H. W. Prentis, Jr. remarked that “The oldest art form yet discovered is a drawing of a cow, executed by some prehistoric man thousands of years before the birth of Christ on the wall of a French Cave.” He continued to note that the Lascaux paintings were essentially the same as a line drawing of Borden’s famed mascot, Elsie the Cow, concluding that “In the space of less than a century (…) science and industry have transformed that same cow from a family possession into a multi-million dollar business.” Throughout history, humans have cultivated milch cows for sustenance and profit; as Prentis’s statement makes clear, they have also cultivated images of such “cash cows” as early human artistic essays, evocations of the pastoral idyll, or, in industrial America, as branded commodities. This paper considers how milk packaging transformed the product from a rural staple to a school-lunch essential in modern America. Tracing milk packaging from the pastoral to the industrial, and finally to its place of primacy on supermarket shelves, this presentation explores America’s attitude toward milk within the framework of Roland Barthes’s essay “Toward a Psychology of Contemporary Food Consumption” to reveal the ways in which the dairy industry packaged politics, national identity, and consumer trust along with fluid milk in America between 1850 and 1950.

Presentation type: 
Scheduled on: 
Thursday, November 8, 9:30 am to 10:45 am

Session information

Interiors and Objects

Thursday, November 8, 9:30 am to 10:45 am (Boardroom)

Marilyn F. Friedman will have a book signing Thursday afternoon at 2:30 in the Versailles exhibit room.

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