It was nearly 90 years ago when Elbridge Amos Stuart struggled to find a name for his new unsweetened condensed milk product. Already, 2,000 cases of unlabeled cans had piled up in a Seattle condenser plant waiting for a name.
Stuart wanted an attention grabbing red-and-white label and a flower of some sort that would help in identifying the product.
Finally, while walking down a Seattle street, Stuart saw a box of Carnation brand cigars in a store window. "The absurdity of calling a cigar Carnation struck me forcibly but led me to know that I had at last found a name for my milk," Stuart recalled later.
Now the familiar Carnation brand is found on a variety of dairy products, from condensed milk--known now as evaporated milk--to ice cream to non-dairy creamers. Carnation is also the name of the Los Angeles-based foods company that also makes such products as Contadina pasta, Libby canned foods, and Friskies and Mighty Dog pet foods. Sales last year totaled about $2.6 billion.
Stuart, a former El Paso grocer who had moved to Los Angeles in 1894, teamed up with another former grocer, Tom Yerxa, to buy a bankrupt Seattle condenser plant. At that time, contaminated fresh milk was still a major problem and many consumers were turning to canned condensed milk that remained fresh for long periods without refrigeration.
The two grocers, relying on a patented process created by Swiss immigrant John B. Meyenberg, soon found themselves competing against Pet Milk, whose evaporated milk had already been on shelves for nearly 30 years.
Unlike Pet, however, Carnation milk was unsweetened--Pet used a large amount of sugar at the time as a preservative--and the firm proved itself a superior marketer with a flair for showmanship.
Stuart, who later bought out Yerxa to become Carnation's sole owner, shipped cans of Carnation milk to Japan and then back to the United States to prove his product would not spoil.
In 1906, a Chicago advertising executive coined Carnation's memorable slogan by claiming that the company's milk came "from contented cows."
Archrival Pet disputed the claim. "It is the perfection of the process, not the psychological state of the cow, that creates a superior product," the makers of Pet said.
But the executives had underestimated the power images have in advertising. Within a year, Carnation and its herds of contented cows overtook Pet in sales.