According to the writings of Marco Polo, in the thirteenth century the Tatars were able to condense milk. Marco Polo reported that ten pounds (4.5 kg) of milk paste was carried by each man, who would subsequently mix the product with water. However, this probably refers to the soft Tatar curd (katyk), which can be made into a drink (ayran) by diluting it, and therefore refers to fermented, not fresh, milk concentrate.
Nicolas Appert condensed milk in France in 1820, and Gail Borden Jr., in the United States in 1853, in reaction to difficulties in storing milk for more than a few hours. Before this development, milk could be kept fresh for only a short while and was available only in the immediate vicinity of a lactating cow. While returning from a trip to England in 1851, Borden was devastated by the deaths of several children, apparently from poor milk obtained from shipboard cows. With less than a year of schooling and following a series of failures, both of his own and of others, Borden was inspired by the vacuum pan he had seen being used by Shakers to condense fruit juice and managed to reduce milk without scorching or curdling it. Even then his first two factories failed and only the third, built with new partner Jeremiah Milbank in Wassaic, New York, produced a usable milk derivative that was long-lasting and needed no refrigeration.
Probably of equal importance for the future of milk production were Borden’s requirements (the “Dairyman’s Ten Commandments”) for farmers who wanted to sell him raw milk: they were required to wash the cows’ udders before milking, keep barns swept clean, and scald and dry their strainers morning and night. By 1858, Borden’s milk, sold as Eagle Brand, had gained a reputation for purity, durability and economy.
In 1864, Gail Borden’s New York Condensed Milk Company constructed the New York Milk Condensery in Brewster, New York. This was the largest and most advanced milk factory of its day and was Borden’s first commercially successful plant. More than 200 dairy farmers supplied 20,000 gallons (76,000 litres) of milk daily to the Brewster plant as demand increased driven by the American Civil War.
The U.S. government ordered huge amounts of condensed milk as a field ration for Union soldiers during the war. This was an extraordinary field ration for the nineteenth century: a typical 10-oz (300-ml) can contained 1,300 calories (5440 kJ), 1 oz (28 g) each of protein and fat, and more than 7 oz (200 g) of carbohydrate.
Soldiers returning home from the war soon spread the word, and by the late 1860s condensed milk was a major product. The first Canadian condensery was built at Truro, Nova Scotia, in 1871. In 1899, E. B. Stuart opened the first Pacific Coast Condensed Milk Company (later known as the Carnation Milk Products Company) plant in Kent, Washington. The condensed milk market developed into a bubble, with too many manufacturers chasing too little demand. In 1911, Nestlé constructed the world’s largest condensed milk plant in Dennington, Victoria, Australia. By 1912, high stocks of condensed milk led to a drop in price and many condenseries went out of business.
In 1914, Otto F. Hunziker, head of Purdue University’s dairy department, self-published Condensed Milk and Milk Powder: Prepared for the Use of Milk Condenseries, Dairy Students and Pure Food Departments. This text, along with the additional work of Hunziker and others involved with the American Dairy Science Association, standardized and improved condensery operations in the United States and internationally. Hunziker’s book was republished in a seventh edition in October 2007 by Cartwright Press.
The First World War regenerated interest in, and the market for, condensed milk, primarily due to its storage and transportation benefits. In the U.S. the higher price for raw milk paid by condenseries created significant problems for the cheese industry.