When most of us think of African-American images in advertising, the faces that come immediately to mind are Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Rastus—all three icons of the food industry. The first two images were developed in the nineteenth century, and the third image of Rastus, the Cream of Wheat Chef, was a face and product that came out of the country’s World War II economy. No question there are elements and insinuations in all three that are stereotypical and insulting to black Americans, but we should remember that each is the creation of an earlier age that over time has been altered to present a less discriminating picture.
A box of Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix from the 1930s
America’s first commercially successful pancake mix is the well-known Aunt Jemima, going back to a milling company in St Joseph, Missouri, 1889. An editor from The St Joseph Gazette, Chris Rutt, loved pancakes for breakfast but hating making them from scratch and came up with the idea of a pre-mixed self-rising flour. He put together in plain brown paper sacks a formulation of flour, phosphate of lime, soda and salt and began selling it to grocers, but it didn’t catch on and sold poorly. At the theater one night Rutt saw a minstrel show done in black face with the actors performing a New Orleans cakewalk to a tune called “Old Aunt Jemima.” The actors performed in aprons and red bandanas, the traditional attire of a southern female cook. The idea appealed to Rutt and he took the song’s title and the image of a southern “mammy” to use on his pancake mix.
The new image increased sales, but Rutt soon sold the business to the Davis Milling Company. Chicago hosted a big exposition in 1893 and Davis took advantage of the occasion to promote his Aunt Jemima pancake mix by way of a trend-setting advertising ploy—bringing a trademark to life. For that he hired a black woman named Nancy Green, a storyteller, cook and former slave. Green was introduced as Aunt Jemima at the World’s Columbian Exposition, where it was her job to operate a pancake-cooking display. Her good-natured personality and her talent as a cook helped establish the product. She served visitors to the exposition more than a million pancakes and required a detail of policemen to prevent the crowds from rushing the concession. From that time on, marketing for the pancake mix centered around the stereotypical mammy archetype.
Nancy Green, the original Aunt Jemima
By 1914 the image of Aunt Jemima was so popular that the company was renamed the Aunt Jemima Mills Company. In 1926 the Quaker Oats Company purchased the Aunt Jemima Mills Company, and a few years later took Aunt Jemima to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Nancy Green, The original Aunt Jemima had died some years earlier, and this time the character was played by Anna Robinson, a large, gregarious woman with the face of an angel who continued to promote Aunt Jemima at expositions, state fairs, stores, and in television commercials until her death in 1951. Over the years legends were created to promote the idea that Aunt Jemima was a real cook who made the best pancakes in the south, but in reality it was simply a clever promotional strategy that made the company one of the most famous in the world.
Today the legacy and brand name continue to be strong but Aunt Jemima is no longer presented as a caricature which evokes negative emotions among the African-American community. The Aunt Jemima image was revamped in 1989 with the image above—the head bandana is gone, pearl earrings have been added and the face is much younger. Some will still find the image offensive, but Quaker describes Aunt Jemima as someone standing for ‘warmth, nourishment and trust—qualities you’ll find in loving moms from diverse backgrounds who care for and want the very best for their families.’