It's also credited with helping reduce infant mortality rates at one point in its 160-year history.

A must-have for homemade caramel, tres leches cake, or ice cream, condensed milk is a pantry staple for many households. But this convenient ingredient has a surprising origin story that involves fighting food poisoning, fueling Civil War troops, and the inventor of the lazy Susan.

Battling Bacteria

Canned condensed milk was invented by Gail Borden in 1856. A former surveyor and editor, Borden also fancied himself an inventor by creating the lazy Susan, the prairie schooner (a sail-powered wagon), and his most famous product, condensed milk.

His delve into the world of dairy preservation was reportedly spurred on by a boat trip during which he witnessed several children die due to contaminated fresh milk. At the time, with refrigeration being uncommon, milk spoiled quickly and was a common cause of food poisoning and other illnesses, especially among infants and toddlers who relied on it for nourishment. Borden borrowed the idea of using a vacuum evaporator to make shelf-stable milk from the Shaker community, which used this method to preserve fruits for year-round consumption.

After several trials (including two failed factories), Borden eventually opened the facility for Eagle Brand condensed milk. It became a smashing success. The company's sweetened condensed milk is often credited with helping significantly reduce infant mortality rates in North America.

Sweetened condensed milk tin
Credit: ninikas / Getty Images

Fueling the Troops

One of the driving forces behind Eagle Brand's success was product orders from the United State's government. While the Civil War raged on, Union troops were in need of mass amounts of calories that were portable, easy to eat, and overall safe to consume, a perfect task for sweetened condensed milk. Soldiers were given cans as part of their rations, and its popularity with them after the war is partly what made Eagle Brand a household name.

The Civil War and condensed milk's intertwined history is also what inspired another popular brand of the shelf-stable product to pop up. Charles Page, part of the brother duo who were the forefathers of Nestlé, learned about condensed milk while acting as a journalist on the frontlines of the Civil War. He later went on to be a U.S. Vice Consul of Trade in Zurich, Switzerland, and was inspired to get into the dairy industry by all the dairy cows in the area. He and his brother, George, went on to open the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company, Europe's first condensed milk factory in 1866.

Today's Two Major Brands

The popularity of condensed milk grew over the decades, at one point creating a market bubble with a variety of companies producing it. Once that bubble burst, two main producers remained, the original Eagle Brand and Nestlé.

You can still find those brand names on store shelves today, offering several options like condensed milk, sweetened condensed milk, and fat-free sweetened condensed milk. So next time you open up a can of condensed milk, take a moment to ponder the storied history behind this unique product.

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