The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima

Larry Holzwarth - February 13, 2021

In 1889, a new product came to the American market, advertised as the first “ready-mix” for pancakes in the United States. Developed by the Pearl Milling Company of St. Joseph, Missouri, it did not sell well. Partners Charles G. Underwood and Chris Rutt found the market for flours to be highly competitive, with the result that bumper wheat crops and low prices kept profits low. The following year, faced with a cash shortage, the mixture they had concocted and the emblem used to market it was sold. The new owner modified the mixture, adding corn sugar and powdered milk to enhance flavor and ease of use. He kept the advertising logo, which gradually became one of the most famous, or infamous, in the world.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
A postcard featuring the Aunt Jemima Mills in St. Joseph, Missouri. Wikimedia

The logo, as did many during that less racially informed period, featured a stereotyped version of plantation “Mammies” of the antebellum South, as well as the name, Aunt Jemima. Rutt had selected the name and the image from a vaudeville poster. The new mixture sold briskly, and the owner, the Davis Milling Company eventually changed their name to Aunt Jemima Mills. Already the largest flour milling concern in Missouri when they purchased the pancake mix, it grew to an international conglomerate and altered trademark infringement laws in the United States. Here is the history of Aunt Jemima as a corporation and symbol in American culture.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
Crude stereotypes of “Mammies” appeared similarly to this sheet music cover from the 1880s. Wikimedia

1. The original Aunt Jemima came from a caricature on a vaudeville advertising lithograph

Aunt appeared as a means to address enslaved older Black women in the American South prior to the Civil War, as did Uncle for their older male counterparts. Younger Black people considered it a term of respect at the time. Black people were denied the courtesy titles of Mrs. and Mr. The term continued in use following the Civil War, no longer deemed respectful. Following Reconstruction and the onset of the Lost Cause Period, the terms became stereotypes for the so-called contented slaves of the antebellum plantations. Ben was a common name for Uncles, though Tom was avoided because of the negative connotations indicating a docility toward their masters. In 1875, Billy Kersands, a popular Black minstrel and comedy performer, wrote a song entitled Old Aunt Jemima. Some say Christopher Rutt attended a performance of a minstrel show in which the song was performed by a character presenting the image. Others claim he lifted it directly from an advertising poster.

Regardless, the image was already a stereotype by 1889. The stereotypes included a large, buxom Black woman, wearing a kerchief covering her hair, with a wide bright smile and a constantly upbeat attitude. An apron also appeared on the character. Similar “Mammies” appeared in plays, minstrel shows, magazines, and books of the period, many of them sharing the name Jemima, often shortened to just Mima. They all depicted the same image, that of a slave more than happy with her lot in life, and a cook of what later became known as comfort foods. The Mammy character continued more or less the same for decades, though as will be seen, the name Aunt Jemima became trademarked and its use largely prohibited to anyone besides the Aunt Jemima Mills.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
A racist advertisement for Pears Soap from 1890. Wikimedia

2. Soon paper dolls emerged, and Aunt Jemima acquired a family

In 1894, in what was likely an advertising first, Aunt Jemima pancake mix appeared in a box with a paper doll, easily removed with scissors once the contents of the box were consumed. Sales increased, in part because children were eager to empty the box so as to get their hands on the doll. To increase sales, Aunt Jemima introduced a companion for their icon, a male named Uncle Rastus, later changed to Uncle Mose. When Cream of Wheat came onto the market it used the image of American chef Emery Mapes on the packaging, describing him as Rastus. Aunt Jemima wanted to avoid confusion with the competing breakfast product. Later a line of children for the pair also appeared as paper dolls. Still later, cutout clothes for the family adorned the boxes of pancake mix.

As may be perceived, the advertising for Aunt Jemima was blatantly racist from the start, though no more or less than numerous other products of the day. All exploited the stereotypes which emerged during the Lost Cause. For many products, but especially consumer products for use in the home by housewives, racial images and slogans dominated. The image of the happy slaves cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and supervising children appeared on food products, soaps, cleaning tools, scrub brushes, and other products. All were meant to guide the housewife in best products to use to create a happy home. One product, Pears Soap, even presented images in which it made dark skin white.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
Aunt Jemima drawing based on Nancy Green, as well as the sterotyped slogan which appeared in 1893. Wikimedia

3. The 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago introduced a woman portraying Aunt Jemima

The 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago’s specially built Great White City officially opened on October 21, 1892, in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World. It didn’t open to the public until May 1 of the following year, as many of the buildings and displays weren’t ready until then. During the months of preparation for the event, Davis Milling executives learned of several competing products planning displays and demonstrations at the exhibition. Among them were Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, and Quaker Oats. Also included in the exhibits was a display and demonstration of the first all-electric kitchen. Davis Mills decided they needed to be included.

Davis Mills erected a display in the form of a giant flour barrel, advertising Aunt Jemima’s Pancakes in large letters on its staves. But the centerpiece of the display as envisioned by Davis was Aunt Jemima herself, telling stories, singing, dancing, and most importantly demonstrating the ease of making pancakes using her flour. A backstory emerged for her history, including her being born on a Louisiana plantation, owned by Colonel Higbee. As his cook, she developed her own “secret recipe” for her pancakes, which became famous as the best in the South. Storyline and display in place, Davis needed someone to portray the character. Casting calls went out for actresses to audition for the role of Aunt Jemima.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
A Kentucky native and Chicago domestic, Nancy Green became the face of Aunt Jemima in advertising. Wikimedia.

4. Nancy Green won the role to portray Aunt Jemima

Nancy Hayes Green was born near Mount Sterling, Kentucky. By the time of the American Civil War, she had already lost her husband and two of her children, and sometime after 1863, she moved to Covington, Kentucky. There she worked as a nanny and cook for Charles and Amanda Walker. The Walkers relocated to Chicago in the early 1870s, and Nancy went with them, settling into a large home on Ashland Avenue. It was the Walkers who learned of the search for someone to portray Aunt Jemima during the upcoming Columbian Exhibition, and they encouraged Nancy to try out for the part. Charles Walker also wrote to Davis Milling, recommending Nancy for the role, as she resembled (according to Walker) the image depicted in the company’s advertising.

Nancy had no prior experience acting, nor singing before an audience, nor entertaining, beyond amusing the children in her charge. Nonetheless, she won the role. Advertising for the exhibit at the upcoming fair altered the image of Aunt Jemima to more closely resemble Nancy. A new slogan “I’m in town” appeared on posters and in magazines, with the dates of her appearance at the exhibition. Nancy turned 59 years old two months before her first appearance as Aunt Jemima before an audience. She became an immediate success, and her popularity at the fair, as well as that of the pancakes she prepared while entertaining the audience, led to huge orders. Over 50,000 barrels of Aunt Jemima pancake flour sold at the Exposition. Davis signed Nancy to a lifetime contract to portray Aunt Jemima.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
Advertisers carefully crafted Aunt Jemima’s backstory, which included elements of the Lost Cause myth. Pinterest

5. During and following the Columbian Exhibition the Aunt Jemima legend expanded

With the success of Aunt Jemima as a marketing character, Davis Mills embellished her fictional back story. As a loyal cook to the fictional Colonel Higbee, she defended him when he was attacked by Union soldiers during the war. She remained loyal to her former master after the war, continuing to prepare “the best pancakes in the South”, attracting many visitors to his plantation. Advertising executive James W. Young provided much of the backstory, often illustrated by Newell Convers (N. C.) Wyeth. According to their tales, Aunt Jemima couldn’t be persuaded to sell her “secret recipe” for her pancake flour until after the death of Colonel Higbee.

The backstory and its imagery of southern plantations filled with happy slaves, loyal to the White’s they served, were part of the lore of the Lost Cause. Davis Mills, the manufacturer of Aunt Jemima’s pancake flour, were located in St. Joseph, Missouri, which had been a hotbed of Confederate guerilla activity during the Civil War. Post-war, anti-Union sentiment continued to be strong, and former Confederate guerrillas emerged as roving bandits, including the infamous James brothers, Frank and Jesse. The fictional stories of the “Happy South” and the racist imagery portrayed by Green as Aunt Jemima drew protests from civil rights leaders almost immediately. But her popularity at the Columbian Exhibition led to plans to exploit her appearances wherever Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour was sold.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
A 1923 representation of Aunt Jemima for print advertising. Wikimedia

6. Nancy Green became a fixture at American fairs and celebrations

For the next several years, Nancy Green traveled the country to appear before audiences as Aunt Jemima. The audiences weren’t in theaters. She appeared at state and county fairs, rodeos, industrial exhibitions, trade shows, and Fourth of July celebrations. During the winter months, she appeared in urban markets and grocery stores. At the same time, support marketing emerged. Ragdolls, their appearance based on the original cutout dolls, were offered by the company, at her appearances and by mail order. As she grew older, Nancy tired of the pace. In 1900, Davis Mills wanted to send her to the Paris Exhibition, an international celebration of the centennial. She declined. She returned to working as a domestic in Chicago. Nancy died when struck by a car in 1923.

Later scholars debate whether she truly had a lifetime contract as Aunt Jemima or if the company created that story as part of the mythical Aunt Jemima tale. When she refused the trip to Paris, they immediately hired Agnes Moodey, of whom relatively little is known, to assume the role in France. What is known is the company presented her as the original Aunt Jemima, and press reports of her trip to Paris and subsequent return referred to her attending “every exposition of any consequence in the last 25 years”. That would mean Moodey had performed the Aunt Jemima role since 1876, longer than the product she pitched had existed at the time. Moodey’s return from Paris made newspapers across the country, which all referred to the return of Aunt Jemima, rather than the actress portraying her, in their headlines.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
As this advertisement attests, Aunt Jemima Mills offered rag dolls of their icon’s “family” for decades. Wikimedia

7. The Davis Mills changed their name in 1914

The success of Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Flour created a market for four different grains processed by the Davis Mills. Wheat (originally hard winter wheat), corn, rye, and rice flours, combined with corn sugar, salt, powdered milk, and baking soda comprised Aunt Jemima’s “secret recipe”. The demand for the pancake mix grew to the point that all of the Davis Mills capacity went to producing it. In 1914, recognizing the value of the name on any products they produced, Davis Mills changed their name to Aunt Jemima Mills. They advertised extensively in the popular magazines of the day and offered merchandise to increase their widening popularity. Ragdolls evolved, with different images for each of the characters as time went on.

The dolls evolved into rags to riches characters, signifying the improving fortunes of the family. The earliest versions appeared as the cutouts on the boxes and were identified as “before the receipt was sold” (receipt was an early version of recipe). Gradually the cutout dolls, and the later rag dolls, appeared better dressed, with happier facial expressions, though still plainly stereotypes of the so-called “Happy South” presented by the Lost Cause advocates. Like nearly everything else, they became collectibles late in the 20th century. Those considered most valuable bear the name, The Davis Milling Company, indicating they were produced before the name changed in 1914. Aunt Jemima and family dolls were produced at sporadic times well into the 1950s.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
Aunt Jemima’s fame grew to such that other companies tried to exploit her image. Wikimedia

8. Aunt Jemima led to a landmark decision in trademark law in 1915

By the time Davis Mills changed its name to Aunt Jemima Mills, the character was so popular that similar images and characters based on Aunt Jemima marketed numerous products. One company went too far, in the minds of Aunt Jemima executives. The company, doing business as Rigney and Company, manufactured and marketed pancake syrup. According to its label it was made from “Rock Candy Drippings and Maple Syrup” by the company in Brooklyn, New York. The label included the image of Aunt Jemima and the name of the product, “Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Syrup”, claiming it as a registered trademark. Aunt Jemima Mills took umbrage at the impertinence.

For one thing, as they alleged in the court documents, the syrup from Brooklyn was an inferior product and could cause customers to infer the same of their pancake flour. Rigney and Company countered that Aunt Jemima Mills did not make syrup, so there was no infringement. The judge agreed that syrup and pancake mix are not competing products, but the Brooklyn company’s use of the label and name “has created in the minds of purchasers the belief that the said goods are a product of the plaintiff”. It entered American law as the Aunt Jemima Doctrine. Other lawsuits involving Aunt Jemima and trademark infringements followed but somewhat surprisingly, Aunt Jemima did not enter the syrup business for another fifty years.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
Quaker Oats acquired Aunt Jemima following the economic stresses of World War I and the early 1920s. Quaker Oats

9. The Aunt Jemima Doctrine has been cited in numerous cases, with varying results

The arguments of the defendants in the lawsuit which led to the Aunt Jemima Doctrine went something like the following. A customer looking for a box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix isn’t likely to think a can of Aunt Jemima pancake syrup is a substitute for the flour mix, and vice versa. Whether they are products of the same company is immaterial, they aren’t competing with each other for the customer’s dollar. Though the judge agreed with Aunt Jemima Mills, creating the doctrine, it has been used in other cases in favor of allowing two similarly named products to coexist. One famous case citing Aunt Jemima Doctrine occurred between Apple Computer and Apple Corp, the company formed by the Beatles, when both continued to use a Granny Smith Apple as their logo.

Two years following the decision, the United States entered World War I, and restrictions on the use of flour and other products brought a sharp downturn in profits. Following the war, the economy contracted sharply before finally beginning to rebound in the early 1920s. However, Prohibition greatly reduced the demand for grain, and prices plummeted, further disrupting business. In 1925, Aunt Jemima Mills sold the brand, brand names, and trademarks to Quaker Oats. One of the new owner’s first acts included hiring a new portrayer of Aunt Jemima in advertising and live appearances, as it sought to rejuvenate the brand. Soon there were several women portraying Aunt Jemima, in different venues, contemporaneously.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
An Aunt Jemima ad from Good Housekeeping in the early 1930s. Wikimedia

10. Several women portrayed Aunt Jemima during the 1920s and 1930s

Shortly after acquiring the Aunt Jemima brand, Quaker Oats hired several women to portray her in person. They adopted the appearance, more or less, as that of Nancy Green. In Texas, Quaker hired Lillian Richards, a cook who operated out of the town of Paris. Lillian traveled, as had Nancy Green, to portray Aunt Jemima at fairs, festivals, and to perform demonstrations in grocery stores and shows featuring new appliances. She held the role until she suffered a stroke in 1947. Although her shows were successful, Quaker did not consider her for the role of Aunt Jemima at the World’s Fair in 1933, Chicago’s Century of Progress Exhibition.

After an open casting call, Quaker’s advertising company, Lord and Thomas, selected Anna Robinson. Like Green, Anna hailed from Kentucky, but unlike Green she was a large woman, about 350 lbs, and she closely resembled the “Mammy” stereotype then returning to prominence in films. She became so successful the image of Aunt Jemima on packaging changed to more closely resemble her. Anna became a celebrity. Following her appearance at the World’s Fair, Quaker used her to market the brand in New York by having her prepare pancakes for other celebrities in highly promoted events. She prepared and served Aunt Jemima’s pancakes in famed venues such as the Stork Club, the Waldorf-Astoria, and even the 21 Club, always in character.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
Tess Gardella, a successful Broadway actress, became Aunt Jemima in the 1930s. imdb

11. Aunt Jemima appeared on radio with programs of her own in the 1930s

Beginning in 1930, and continuing through the decade into the early 1940s, Aunt Jemima could be heard on the radio in her own short program. Several women provided the voice of the advertising icon, many of them White. Among them was a woman who had portrayed Black characters in plays, film shorts, and theatricals since the 1920s, using the stage name Aunt Jemima. She was an Italian-American from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania named Tess Gardella. Gardella achieved critical success playing the role of Queenie in a stage production of Showboat, in blackface. That performance earned her the role of Aunt Jemima on radio, in a series of programs that included musical entertainment for the audience.

Gardella once sued NBC for using the name Aunt Jemima on a radio broadcast, claiming her long use of the name gave her exclusive rights to its use. Despite the character being entirely fictional she won her suit, receiving over $100,000 dollars in a settlement. Nonetheless, several other actresses appeared as Aunt Jemima on radio broadcasts. In the 1940s the radio series Aunt Jemima gained an audience from rebroadcasts of the originals, leading to a revival of the series in the early 1950s, featuring Amanda Randolph in the starring role. Randolph became a pioneer of early television, one of the earliest Black performers with a starring role in a regular series. She voiced Aunt Jemima for radio commercials, but her appearance as other characters in television made her unsuitable for the role on screen.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
Louise Beavers (left) played a character closely resembling Aunt Jemima in 1934’s Imitation of Life. Universal Pictures

12. A novel and Hollywood film borrowed the Aunt Jemima backstory in the 1930s

In 1933, a novel entitled Imitation of Life appeared, written by feminist and civil rights advocate Fannie Hurst. The novel generated both controversy for its depiction of Black stereotypes by some, and critical acclaim from others. The following year a Hollywood film with the same title was released, starring Claudette Colbert and featuring Louise Beavers. Beavers’ role as a housekeeper who provides domestic services in exchange for room and board borrowed liberally from the backstory for Aunt Jemima. Her character, named Delilah, developed her own mix for a pancake batter, based on a “secret family recipe”. Delilah also portrays the characteristics of the stereotypical Mammy then prevalent in films. Together they set up a pancake house on the New Jersey shore.

The pancake house makes Delilah and her employer, Bea, played by Claudette Colbert, well to do, though several issues regarding Delilah’s mixed-race daughter are central to the film. Eventually, Delilah’s pancake mix is marketed as “Delilah’s Pancake Flour” and Bea and Delilah become rich. The pancake mix angle is but a small part of the film, which like the novel focused on race relations and freedom of opportunity in the United States. A 1959 remake under the same name (and starring Lana Turner), ignores the entire story of the pancake batter and its contribution to the wealth of the two characters. By the time the 1959 film appeared, most of the Aunt Jemima backstory was not as well known as it had been in 1934.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. Wikimedia

13. The Mammy character and other stereotypes continued through the 1940s unabated

Reinforced by the performance of Hattie McDaniel in 1939’s Gone With the Wind, the mammy stereotype remained a fixture in film, radio, and print advertising throughout the 1940s. Mammies also appeared in dramas and comedy onstage and on radio, often with names other than Aunt Jemima. Other stereotypes prevailed as well, possibly the most famous being Amos and Andy. The program aired for the first time on WMAQ in Chicago and proved immediately successful. To the listening audience, the show seemed to be coming from Harlem, presenting the adventures of Amos Jones and Andrew Hoog Brown, both Black men. Their interactions with friends and get-rich-quick schemes amused audiences of all ages.

In reality, most episodes of the series on radio were broadcast from the El Mirador Hotel, a posh resort frequented by Hollywood stars and wealthy guests. The actors portraying Amos and Andy were both White, as were those most of the cast. It was, in essence, blackface on radio. Aunt Jemima appeared, voiced by actors of both races. Minstrel shows featuring White actors in blackface continued to be popular in the 1920s, and many were transferred to film, a practice which continued through the 1930s. In the 1940s a new medium – television – emerged. The role of television in limiting, but by no means eliminating, blackface is seldom explored but substantial. The hot and harsh lighting required by the early television broadcasts made appearing in blackface difficult, as the make-up melted and ran in the heat.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
Edith Wilson in an appearance as Aunt Jemima in the 1950s. Wikimedia

14. Edith Wilson became the new face of Aunt Jemima in the late 1940s

Edith Wilson worked the nightclub scene during the 1920s and 1930s, as a singer and performer, occasionally recording with other blues artists. She preferred live performances over the recording studio, and appeared with many of the leading musicians of her day in New York. Edith sang with Duke Ellington’s orchestra in Harlem, as well as with Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and Cab Calloway in several clubs and venues. She toured Europe singing American blues and modern jazz. She also appeared on radio and in films. During World War II she performed for the troops in USO shows. When Amos and Andy moved to television in the early 1950s she appeared in guest roles on the show, as she previously had for the radio version of the program.

In 1948, Quaker Oats recognized the necessity of developing a presence for their products on the new medium of television. They also considered whomever they chose to appear as Aunt Jemima on television would need to assume the role in personal appearances. In 1948, Edith Wilson was hired to be the first Aunt Jemima on television. She accepted the role at a time when pressures to remove the racially stereotyped imagery from consumer brands and advertising were gathering steam. For the new face of Aunt Jemima, references to her fictional plantation past were dropped. Wilson’s Aunt Jemima remained a stereotypical Mammy in appearance, but the exaggerated dialect and mannerisms were gradually eased, and eventually dropped entirely.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
The cast of Bewitched performing a commercial for Aunt Jemima syrup. YouTube

15. Aunt Jemima’s personal appearances became controversial in the 1950s

The 1950s saw several changes in the civil rights movement, which affected advertising in print, television, radio, and personal appearances. Organizations like the NAACP, churches, and community boards and groups lobbied to preclude racial stereotypes from public events. Aunt Jemima became increasingly controversial, and personal appearances fell from their peak in the 1940s. Though Quaker still had more than one actress appearing as Aunt Jemima during the 1950s, she was absent from more and more of the events in which she had formerly been popular. On television, her appearance limited itself to commercials for her products, and she ceased to be an entertainer in variety show skits, other than when parodied by other performers.

Gradually Aunt Jemima herself vanished from many commercials for the products, replaced by the stars of the shows sponsored by Quaker Oats. The Nelson family of television’s The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet did several commercials broadcast with their show, without Aunt Jemima appearing, other than her face on the box being prominently displayed. Commercials featuring Boy Scouts, including both Black and White Scouts, showed them enjoying Aunt Jemima pancakes while camping, Others featured wholesome family breakfasts or other uses of the product (such as making corn pancakes) appeared, but the iconic character did not. Another used for Bewitched featured Darren and his boss, Larry Tate, trying to come up with a slogan for Aunt Jemima syrup. Samantha solved the problem with her characteristic nose twitch. By the late 1960s, most performers in Aunt Jemima commercials were White.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
Racist dialect vanished from print ads for Aunt Jemima products in the 1950s and 1960s. Wikimedia

16. Aunt Jemima’s appearance changed in the 1950s and 1960s

Under increased pressure from the NAACP and other organizations in the 1960s, Quaker Oats gradually changed the image of Aunt Jemima, removing most of its Mammy stereotypes. By 1968, the bandanna no longer adorned her head, replaced with a headband for a time. Her skin gradually lightened, she became less heavyset, and most of the racially offensive dialect disappeared from both print advertisements and those on television. Quaker stopped marketing products featuring the character, replacing them with others intended for use with the pancake mix (such as batter shakers). By the early 1970s, Quaker’s ad teams described her appearance as being that of a Black grandmother, well-dressed, adorned with jewelry and always smiling. Later she began to grow younger in appearance and shown only from the shoulders up on the packaging.

Aunt Jemima was not the only brand icon which underwent significant changes during the 1960s and 1970s. Uncle Ben’s Rice changed the appearance of its character from a butler to one of a Black man in his senior years wearing an open collar shirt. Frito’s Frito Bandito vanished completely in 1971. Mrs. Butterworth’s, a product which didn’t appear on the market until 1961, originally came in glass bottles shaped to appear as a servant, leading to accusations of racism. When the product was repackaged in plastic in the late 20th century, its shape changed dramatically. No backstory was created for the product (nor Uncle Ben’s) but their names came to be considered pejoratives in many cases, racial epithets stocked on grocery shelves.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
Aunt Jemima as she appeared on packaging in the 1980s. Wikimedia

17. Aunt Jemima’s product line expanded in the 1960s

Aunt Jemima, which built its brand on pancake mix, expanded into other products as part of Quaker Oats, several of them competing with Quaker’s own brands. Corn bread mixes, corn meal both white and yellow, and grits entered their product lines over the years. In 1966, they introduced pancake syrup, through a marketing campaign which included the slogan, “Aunt Jemima, what took you so long?” It became a catchphrase in America in the late sixties and early seventies. Quaker licensed the brand name and logo to Aurora Foods in 1996. Aurora later became part of Pinnacle Foods. Through them, the Aunt Jemima logo appeared on frozen waffles and other quickly prepared foods.

In 1989, yet another change occurred to the logo, when Aunt Jemima’s hairband vanished and her lightly graying hair became plain to see. The change was made in accordance with the brand’s 100th anniversary, the sixth major alteration of the iconic image. She also received a white collar, and earrings evidently of pearl. By then stereotypical dialogue had disappeared from print ads, and the character itself no longer appeared in television advertising, other than the image on the box. In the early 1990s, Quaker’s advertisers decided it was time to return a black spokeswoman to their television campaign. When they did, it provoked considerable controversy, and reinitiated public debate over the racism inherent in the Aunt Jemima image.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
Ads such as this one, linking Aunt Jemima to the fictional South of the Lost Cause, made the product name reviled and insulting. Wikimedia

18. The name Aunt Jemima became a pejorative in the late 20th century

By the late 20th century, the names Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Uncle Mose, Rastus, and others, including Uncle Tom, were widely regarded as insulting and racist. As previously noted, in the antebellum and Reconstruction South, the terms Uncle and Aunt were often applied to older black people, as a sign of respect by some, and disparagingly by others. They were used because the honorifics mister and mistress were not, at least not on pre-war plantations and in the cities and towns. For Black Americans, they were viewed as a link to the past and slavery, as well as the oppression of the Jim Crow laws in the post-war South. Aunt Jemima became an insult used against black people, as did other brand names.

For those objecting to the names, they were thinly disguised racial slurs. They also alluded to a non-existent South as a happy land in which Black Americans were content with their lot as slaves, as presented in films set in the antebellum period. By the late 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement, more accurate presentations of slavery in the United States emerged, including in the schools of several of the Southern states. Quaker executives grasped the racially fraught images of their iconic logo, but despite continuous urgings of various groups, did not recognize the perceived hurtful nature of the name. The name implied a lighthearted view of the sufferings of previous generations. Several years were needed before those sentiments were recognized.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
Gladys Knight in a commercial for Aunt Jemima syrup, an advertising campaign which drew criticism and considerable controversy. YouTube

19. Another woman appeared as the spokesperson for Aunt Jemima in 1994

In 1994, a new advertising campaign for Aunt Jemima products began, and it was immediately met with criticism and condemnation by several civil rights advocates and groups. Gladys Knight, famed as a singer since the 1960s, appeared as the new spokesperson in commercials. Knight’s singing career had brought her the sobriquet “Empress of Soul” and she had an impressive resume in films and television at the time. Yet the new advertising campaign brought an immediate backlash. Some of it focused on the brand itself and its insensitivity. Some of it focused on Knight personally. The advertising campaign was intended to recover much of the Black demographic which had been lost following numerous boycotts of the brand.

Knight appeared in one commercial with her real-life grandchildren, all enjoying breakfast together. It used the slogan, “Now You’re Cookin’!” as its catchphrase. As criticism of the commercials increased, Knight took to talk shows and interviews to defend her appearance supporting the brand. “For me, it’s what’s in the box, not what’s on the box”, she told Tom Snyder in one interview. Knight also opined, “they have excellent products” in the same interview. An exasperated Snyder commented, “What are they supposed to do, put Kathie Lee on the box?”, a reference to then popular daytime talk show hostess Kathie Lee Gifford. The advertising campaign featuring Gladys Knight did not achieve its intended goals, and sales of Aunt Jemima products among Black Americans continued to fall.

The Real and Problematic History Behind Aunt Jemima
The Aunt Jemima brand represented one of the most successful food companies in American history. Wikimedia

20. Aunt Jemima existed as a brand for over 130 years

Almost from the beginning and throughout the 20th century, the Aunt Jemima brand generated controversy. At first it was a whisper, during the mid-century it grew to a rumble. By the turn of the 21st century it was a steady roar. Racism in advertising and product marketing became a subject researched and taught in colleges and universities. Advertising agencies and professional publications discussed and dissected its prevalence and future. Always at the center of the discussions appeared Aunt Jemima. The image originated with a minstrel performer of a Southern slave, and grew into the stereotype of a Mammy in the pre-war south; happy, loyal, and in reality, fictional.

The brand exploited and built upon the image for decades. Over two dozen actors portrayed Aunt Jemima officially, with countless more using the image for various means. For decades, the brand appeared innocuous to some, and irredeemably offensive to others. By the time its owners attempted to remove the image from its slave origins, the link was too well-established to sever. Even the name had entered the lexicon as insulting, and often, Black Americans used it for just that reason, as a sneering insult. Aunt Jemima emerged as one more of the many attempts to rewrite American history by Southern supporters during the period of the Lost Cause, a time when the South honored its heroes as loyal Americans and denied its true racial history.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Brand Origins” Our History, Aunt Jemima.com. Online

“Aunt Jemima: It Was Never About the Pancakes”. Sarah Doneghy, Black Excellence. January 30, 2018.

“The Unkindest Cut: A History of Black Paper Dolls”. DeNeen L. Brown, The Washington Post. November 29, 2006

“World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893”. Article, The American Experience. PBS. Online

“Overlooked No More: Nancy Green the ‘Real Aunt Jemima'”. Sam Roberts, The New York Times. July 17, 2020

“Aunt Jemima Back”. Article, Independence (Kansas) Daily Reporter. December 3, 1900

“Aunt Jemima and Family!”. Mary Jane Lamphier, Collector’s Journal. January 13, 2020

“How Aunt Jemima Changed US Trademark Law”. Mark Soniak, Mentalfloss. June 15, 2012

“One more on Aunt Jemima”. Dennis Crouch, Patentlyo. July 2, 2020

“The real stories of the Chicago women who portrayed Aunt Jemima”. John Mark Hansen, Chicago Tribune. June 19, 2020

“Tess Gardella, 52, Comedienne, Dead”. Obituary, The New York Times. January 4, 1950

“Imitation of Life”. Essay, Ariel Schudson, Library of Congress. Online

“The Adventures of Amos and Andy: A Social History of an American phenomenon”. Melvin Patrick Ely. 2001

“Singer Edith Wilson – famous Aunt Jemima – Dies”. Obituary, UPI. April 1, 1981

“Aunt Jemima Pancakes Commercials”. Video Archive, Internet Archives. Online

“Aunt Jemima’s will change its name…”. Kate Taylor, Business Insider. June 17, 2020

“Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”. Terry Clark, Carol M. Motley. 1995

“Blacks Question Aunt Jemima Ads”. Lynn Elber, Associated Press. November 12, 1994

“Aunt Jemima will get a new name as Pepsico admits ‘racial stereotype origins'”. Richard Clough, Financial Post. June 17, 2020

“The Lost Cause’s Long Legacy”. Michael Paradis, The Atlantic. June 26, 2020

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