First there was Elsie.

Back in the 1930s, according to Elsie's five-page official biography, the dairy industry was suffering through public relations troubles. The imagemakers at Borden decided that a "friendly, humorous approach had the best chance of changing public opinion."So the Borden artists took the cow - a large, plodding, none-too-smart animal that tends to draw flies and to relieve itself in large quantities - and made it cute.

Since then Elsie's smiling face, superimposed on a daisy, has adorned countless milk cartons, T-shirts, cartoons and other promotions for dairy products. That's her husband, Elmer, on the glue bottle.

It took a few decades, but now they have plenty of company. Never mind that cream sauces and marbled beef are now frowned upon. Never mind that some people accuse cows of messing up the ozone layer and the rain forests. We are, in the words of Smithsonian magazine, living in the Golden Age of Cow Things.

"It is a great cultural phenomenon," says Carol Peiffer, an artist in Evans City, Pa., who publishes The Moosletter, a quarterly compendium of all things bovine. "It's called cowdolatry."

"Cows are currently very popular," confirms Rachel Bolton, a spokeswoman for Hallmark Inc., headquartered in Kansas City, Mo. "When they first came out several years ago, perhaps they were a fad. But now we can say cows are a trend.

"They're almost inherently interesting artistic designs," she says. "Their spots, their shapes, that look you see on their faces. We see many new ways of using a cow motif."

Hallmark, the nation's largest greeting card company, sticks to basics: cards, T-shirts, mugs and other staples of dime stores and shopping malls.

But that is only the beginning. Cow art, cow sculpture, cow jewelry, cow fashion, cow kitsch . . . the possibilities are nearly endless for the masses of Americans who need to, well, have a cow.

"People just love cows," says Christi LeGault, a Dallas artist and owner of Cow Pattys, a Southwestern arts and crafts shop. "I know people redoing their whole house with cows. If I see cow pieces, I'll buy them for the shop, and I know they'll sell."

Cow Pattys, which opened four months ago, eschews mass-produced cow trinkets for handmade pieces, many by local artists. They range from "cowkitty" earrings - a whiskered cat's face on a cow's body - to genuine cowskin chairs.

Indeed, the familiar Holstein pattern of black blobs on a white background lends itself to everything from butter dishes and ceramic lamps to folding tables and women's tights.

"I know someone who did his refrigerator that way," LeGault says.

Cow people around the country have similar explanations as to why these creatures are so appealing.

"It's almost a universal symbol of comfort, of sustenance," Bolton says. "Cows provide the basic food for our young. Hearing a cowbell is very comforting."

Peiffer has roughly 500 cow things in her home, "but many of them have more than one cow, so I have thousands of cows grazing throughout the house." She says they reflect "a tie with our past, a simpler, more wholesome way of life."Cows probably always have reflected those values. They also have been objets d'art since the days of prehistoric cave paintings. But many bovaholics, to use Peiffer's term, trace the current cowmania to Woody Jackson, a Middlebury, Vt., artist who painted houses for a living until he got the idea of painting cow pictures.

"There had always been cow imagery, but it had sort of sunk into an abject state," Jackson says. "When I started in the early '70s, there wasn't much out there."

His cow paintings and limited-edition cow prints gradually gained attention. Then in 1983, the Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream people licensed a folksy Jackson Holstein for their trucks and shops. Factor in the growing popularity of Far Side cartoons, which often feature bovine protagonists, books such as "Wholly Cow" and parodies such as Cowsmopolitan ("How to Milk Your Ex for Everything"), and the boom was on.

"I don't know who decides what's hot and what's not, but it reaches a critical mass," Jackson says. "Cows really became trendy in '87. People were calling me up and saying, `We've got to have a cow line.' "

He responded with Holy Cow, a Middlebury shop, retail store supplier and mail-order business that will gross $1.5 million this year. Jackson's catalog, which has 70,000 subscribers, features cow boxer shorts, life-size plywood cows that will graze your lawn but leave no mess, Red-White-and-Moo (50 cows where the stars should be) shirts and so much more.

Although modest and droll about his place in art history, Jackson says, "What I think I did was make cow art modern and really graphic and really colorful. My cows are real, direct and bold and also funny."

Jackson acknowledges that sales have fallen off a bit in the past couple of years but says that business is improving and that the trend remains strong.

Not everyone agrees.

Liz Davis, owner of Absolutely Necessary, a gift shop in the University Park section of Dallas, got in on the cow craze early. Her favorite item was a black-and-white cow stool, complete with pink udder on the bottom.

"We sold a lot of cow stuff, but you can only sell something for so long," she says. "Perhaps I satiated my market. Things start to move slower, so you stop ordering them."

Absolutely Necessary moved on to Coyote Things, which also faded, and now features a lot of Rabbit Things. Davis is down to a few lonely cow T-shirts and thinks the bovines have gone the way of hula hoops and the Bee Gees.

Jackson, among others, wants to assure us that that is not the case.

"Dinosaurs are really hot now, and I can't believe it, but there are pig collectors out there," he says. "I'm sure something else will come along.

"But I also think we're in it for the long haul. People will be collecting cow things forever."