I was going to save this for Carnation's 118th anniversary in September, but it's Shrove Tuesday and when thinking of pancakes I can't help thinking of Carnation milk so I'm sharing the story of its creation with you.
This article is largely taken from John D. Weaver’s book about the history of Carnation, which is the definitive source on the company’s history. Do look it up as I really can't improve on it.
To understand the importance of the humble milk can, we have to go back to the United States of America at the dawn of the 20th century. The infant mortality rate was high for all kinds of reasons, but one of the big killers was ‘the summer sickness’.
Well-meaning parents believed that cow’s milk was important nourishment for growing children, but during hot weather the bacteria levels in milk could multiply exponentially. At the turn of the century most U. S. cities had no bacterial standards for milk, and milkmen were able to get away with delivering dangerously contaminated milk from unclean dairies. The result were large numbers of child deaths during the summer months from contaminated fresh milk.
It was against this backdrop that E. A. Stuart went into the canned milk business in 1899. Stuart was 42, with three failed business ventures behind him, and no experience of dairy farming. Stuart didn’t go into business alone though, he had Tom Yerxa, a business acquaintance that he’d met on a trolley car. Between them they planned to operate an evaporated milk plant in an abandoned hotel in Kent, Washington, fifteen miles south of Seattle.
Neither of them knew how to evaporate milk, so they relied on a man they later recalled as “a crusty Swiss”, John Myenberg who had patented a new process and apparatus for the job.
Evaporated milk is different to condensed milk for one important reason; nothing is added to evaporated milk. Both types of tinned milk are made by heating the milk in a vacuum pan and extracting some of the water, but condensed milk is thicker because it includes sugar to help it keep longer. Evaporated milk is nothing more than regular milk with the water removed, to turn it back into regular milk you just add clean water.
Early in the morning of the 6th September 1899 neighbouring dairy farmers drove 5,800 lbs (2,744 quarts or 2596 litres) of fresh milk down to Stuart and Yerxa’s new plant. It was converted into 55 cases of evaporated milk, each case containing 48 cans. Unfortunately that first batch was almost unsaleable. This was because Stuart didn’t want to pay top prices to can makers, so all the cans were made by hand at their milk plant. These first cans were badly put together and had a tendency to burst and leak, so Stuart sold the problem cans to local dairymen who would dilute the milk and feed it to their calves.
There were still cans left over, so Stuart bought 200 hog and fattened them with the remaining milk. The company lost $140,000 in its first year and a half. Yerxa was ready to sell out. Stuart gave him $5,000 as a down payment against a purchase price of $45,000. Stuart agreed to assume Yerxa’s half of their $65,000 debt. By spring 1901, Stuart was sole owner of the Pacific Coast Condensed Milk Company (the name was changed to Carnation Company years later), and it looked like he was going to have another failed business on his hands, but Stuart put in a lot of hard work and things began to change.
By 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, Carnation milk was producing more than one million tins of condensed milk per day and had become a store cupboard essential in homes all over America. At last families could get safe, sterilized milk with nothing else added, whereever they lived. Stuart’s unswerving focus on product quality, and a genius for cattle breeding, helped to turn the near bankrupt company into a world-wide success. Carnation became part of the Nestlé family of brands in 1988 and, although the product is no longer a routine substitute for fresh milk, it has found a new lease of life as the cake baker’s secret ingredient.