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Elmer’s Glue: The Surprising Story

Elmer’s Glue was first introduced by the Borden Company in 1947.Elmer's Glue

A dairy company going into the adhesive business may at first seem surprising, but it makes good sense when you learn that one of the prime ingredients in this early form of the glue was casein, the protein in dairy milk. (Today’s glue is made from synthetic substances.)

Borden called their product, Cascorez Glue. The early packaging was a glass bottle with a separate ice cream pop-type wooden applicator. It was attached to the side of the bottle with a rubber band. Elmer, the bull, was not featured on the original product.

Consumers liked the fact that liquid glue was easier to use that paste, and they liked the white glue better than the other glues on the market. LePage’s Glue had been introduced as early as 1876, but it was a permanent adhesive. It was also smelly because it was made from fish byproducts.

In contrast, the white glue from Borden spread nicely and dried clear. The glue could be washed off school desks and cleaned from hands as well.

Consumers complained about the breakable glass bottle and the separate stick applicator that could easily be lost. Borden soon remedied those problems.

Who Invented Elmer’s Glue?

Elmer's GlueBy the time, glue was being manufactured by Borden, the Borden Company was a relatively big conglomerate. Instead of one sole inventor, a team of chemists worked on the development of the glue. Ashton Stull (1917-1991), vice president of the chemical division from 1938-1968, oversaw the team.

Borden never patented the glue (perhaps to keep the ingredients under wraps), and Stull was never listed as the inventor.  However, in 1990 Ashton Stull was honored by Georgia Tech and given their “Dream Maker Award” for his part in the development of Elmer’s Glue-All.

How the Glue Became Elmer’s Glue

To understand how a bull named Elmer came to sell glue for Borden,Borden we need to look at the dairy business. The Borden Company had learned the importance of a strong marketing campaign with their milk products. Milk in the early 20th century often carried disease. Tuberculosis was common as were various illnesses that the cows picked up from the unsanitary conditions on farms.

Borden was one of the first dairies to purchase a farm where the milk was being pasteurized. It was more expensive to produce milk that was processed, so Borden needed a way to convince people that the pasteurized milk was worth it.

In the mid-1930s, all of Borden advertising was overseen by Stuart Peabody. He directed the company’s illustrator, Walter Early, to create a friendly image that would convey a feeling of trust. Together the two men came up with the image of Elmer's GlueElsie. Elsie was a cartoon cow with kindly big brown eyes, and an open and welcoming face. She wore  a daisy chain around her neck.

Elsie was introduced in 1938, and became popular quickly.  A survey done in the 1940s found that 98 percent of the American public recognized Elsie. She is still widely known today.

Elsie and Elmer

Over time, Elsie acquired an All-American family: a husband, Elmer, in 1940, and children, Beulah and Beauregard, in 1948. In 1957, the company added more children–twins, Larabee and Lobelia.

Elsie’s home life was often featured in Borden advertising, so Elmer had been in milk ads for almost ten years by the time the company was looking for a new way to market their glue.

Elmer was always Elmer's Gluefixing things for Elsie. It was perfect. If Elmer’s face appeared on a household product like glue, it still fit the Borden story line.

By 1951 the former Cascorez Glue  was repackaged in a white squeeze bottle with an orange twist cap. The product was renamed Elmer’s Glue-All, and Elmer’s face and name were prominently featured in the new logo.

The easy-to-use packaging and strong marketing campaign successfully put Elmer’s Glue-All ahead of the competition.

Elmer’s Glue and the Company Today

Much has changed in almost seventy years since Elmer’s Glue entered the marketplace. While the packaging remains familiar, it is now made entirely of non-animal products that are just as effective—if not more so—than the original product.

Elmer's GlueBorden also has greatly expanded the product line. The company makes specialty glues that work on different types of surfaces, like Krazy Glue. Some consumers appreciate buying Elmer’s Glue as a glue stick. Glues are also manufactured in colors and with glitter to make them appealing for various craft projects.

In the mid-1990s, the Borden Company was purchased by a private equity firm that spun off Elmer’s Glue as a separate entity.  Since that time, Elmer’s had acquired other craft companies.  In 2003, it merged with Hunt Corporation, maker of X-acto knives and other office products. This further expanded Elmer’s market into both adult crafts and office products.

Despite all the new options, the familiar white squeeze bottle with orange cap and Elmer’s face on the packaging can still be found in almost every household and classroom today.

Interesting Uses of Elmer’s Glue

In addition to craft projects, a document on a website, dedicated to America’s Greatest Brands, noted three fascinating and unusual uses of the Elmer’s product:

  • Sea World of San Antonio used Elmer’s glue to repair the shell of Elmer's Gluean unhatched penguin egg. The egg was successfully incubated and when the baby chipped it’s way out, it was named Elmer after its savior.
  • An emergency room once used Elmer’s glue to remove 600 spines that had become stuck on a child’s arm when a potted cactus fell on her. By pouring the glue on the child’s arm and drying it quickly with a surgical lamp, they were able to peel away the cactus needles.
  • Sand sculptors frequently spray their works of art with a spray consisting of a mixture including Elmer’s Glue. This helps slow the erosion of the sand sculptures.

To gain a more complete understanding of how broadly Elsie and Elmer were known to the American public, read Brownie, the Town Dog of Daytona Beach.  In the 1950s, Elmer and Elsie were “vacationing” in Florida, so Elsie and of her calves came to Daytona Beach to meet Brownie—a public relations person’s dream!

 

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25 thoughts on “Elmer’s Glue: The Surprising Story”

  1. I saw a few YouTube videos of girls using activated charcoal powder mixed with Elmer’s glue to make a face mask that removes blackheads effectively. I wonder whether it is safe?

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  4. Nah we used to coat our hands in this and peel it off for an awesome (when you’re 5) shedding skin effect.

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  6. I never witnessed any one doing their full hands, but I understand from the joy of rubbing off a small patch…. Very satisfying :)

    Kate

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  9. I noticed that the Elmer’s glue we use today is a lot different than years ago. It is so watery now and doesn’t work like it used to. It also.will leave stains through materials.I always loved using Elmer’s glue but not anymore.

  10. That’s interesting. I agree that you can sometimes see stains but I don’t remember when it was better! Thanks for posting.

  11. Nonsense. The new formula isn’t nearly as good. I’m an artist who depends on Elmer’s glue for all of my pieces and I will tell you it looks different, applies differently and isn’t as strong. Very disappointed.

  12. Thank you for your opinion. As an artist, I am sure that you notice the types of things that regular people would miss. I’m generally just gluing an ear back on a china bunny or something.

  13. I’m commenting on my experience with Elmer’s Glue at the American Polymer Corp. in Peabody, Mass., under the executive management of Ashton Stull and Sydney Baum. I worked afternoons (after my senior high school classes) in the sample department packaging and mailing samples of chemical products. One such, labeled by the in-house designation Polyco 199, and described as Butadiene Styrene Latex Emulsion, had the same texture and smell as Elmer’s. I came home smelling of Elmer’s Glue. The smell of Elmer’s today brings back those memories. At approximately 2 PM on Thursday, April 30, 1953, my employment came to a violent end. The chemical plant was destroyed by a tremendous explosion when a product (NOT ELMER’S) in one of the heated chemical-mixing “reactors” went out of control. Rapid over-pressure broke through the rupture discs on the bottom of the reactor spewing volatile vapors into the plant resulting in the explosion. I was blown out of the plant, into a hospital bed for 6-weeks, and released just in time for my high school graduation.

  14. Oh wow….how terrifying! If the accident occurred in 1953, then I trust that you are living a full and good life. I am so sorry that you were at the chemical plant on that terrible day. Thanks for posting.

  15. I went to work for the chemical division of Borden in 1965. The Borden Company was founded by Gail Borden in 1857. He had discovered a way to condense milk by vacuum distilling some of the water out. The process killed bacteria making it preservable for storing in cans. When the Civil War broke out the government started buying the canned milk for its soldiers in the field while the Southern Army still relied on raw milk that often soured causing sickness. By the turn of the century Borden was selling milk to a company called The Casein Company of America. Casein is a protein made by acidifying raw milk. The settled out protein is then drawn off and dried in a prilling tower to produce a powder. That powder, when recombined with water made an excellent, storable glue for things like furniture assembly. Prior to that, furniture assembly was accomplished with animal by-products like animal hooves and it had a very short “pot-life” requiring constant heat when in use. Borden apparently had to seize the Casein Company when the 1928 Depression hit and took over the assets for failing to pay for their milk. That is how Borden got into the adhesives business in 1929. As the business grew, chemists were hired to search for ways to produce synthetic adhesives and Elmer’s Glu-All was born. It was an emulsified blend of materials not involving any chemical reactions. Each member of Elsie the cow’s family represented a new division of the Borden Family of products. Elmer was the face of the rapidly growing Adhesives business until the Elmer’s Glue line of Products was spun off as a Consumer Products line. Prior to that spinoff, as a Supervisor I used to get shipments of quality control rejected squeeze bottles of Elmer’s Glue shipped to me for donations to area elementary school systems for use in their projects. I retired in 2000 and the company was bought and broken up by corporate raiders and sold off to the highest bidders. The Adhesives Division was the first to go.

  16. Thank you so much for this added history! I wish I had known of you when I was researching and writing the article. Learning about casein and its value was information that I looked hard for… And it’s not that easy to find experts on early glue. I finally met a man who had sold a business that made fish glue, so all these pieces began to give me the story. I so appreciate your added information.
    Kate

  17. Im here after finding out that 3M invented post it notes!! What!! So now while I’m in line to get my booster shot with my brother we are reading histories of sticky products. Thank you for this boredom-busting informative and animated article. Love the old ads!

  18. Thank you! And yes, standing in line is boring so I’m very glad this entertained you, and you’re champs for getting boosters!

  19. Initially the primary ingredient was “casein,” the protein in dairy products. It must have been the company’s way of “dressing up” the name.

    Kate

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