Aunt Jemima is one of the early icons of American food advertising. Food manufacturers and marketers sought a means of having consumers identify their products easily as well as projecting an image that fostered positive emotions concerning their product.
Aunt Jemima has been gracing the box containing pancake mix for well over a century. She wasn't there in the beginning, though. In 1889 Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood developed and began marketing ready made pancake mix for their company, the Pearl Milling Company. Rutt had seen a vaudeville show featuring a catchy tune called Aunt Jemima, sung by a performer in blackface wearing an apron and a bandanna headband. Rutt had the idea of using a representation of the character to advertise their product. The Aunt Jemima character was patterned after the colored 'mammy' figure, a female colored servant entrusted to cook and care for the children as well as perform other domestic chores. Mammy is a derivative of Momma, but carries a lower status. The mammy was given the chore of wiping runny noses and cleaning dirty bottoms, the one the mistress of the house would pass along the onerous tasks to perform while reserving her own time for more cultured pursuits. Of course, the mammy was expected to perform these tasks without complaint and preferably with a cheerful grin and a respectful "Yessum, ma'am".
Rutt & Underwood fell on hard times and in 1890 sold their recipe to R. T. Davis Milling Company. It was R. T. Davis who hired Nancy Green as a living spokesperson in 1893, thereby creating the first living Aunt Jemima advertising character. While it was Rutt & Underwood who created the advertising persona, it was Davis who clothed it in flesh and blood, creating a milepost in the evolution of advertising.
Nancy Green was born in 1834 as a slave in Montgomery County, Kentucky. She became the first African-American spokesperson as well as the first living spokesperson hired to represent a brand. Davis hired her to represent his company at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Green was a huge success in the role, greeting customers, cooking pancakes, telling stories, and creating a huge amount of good will. In large part it was her efforts which resulted in over 50,000 orders for the product. Nancy Green signed a lifetime contract to continue in the Aunt Jemima role, which she fulfilled until her death in 1923 in a tragic auto accident.
By 1914 the brand had become so popular and recognized that the company renamed itself the Aunt Jemima Mills Company. The growing concern caught the attention of Quaker Oats, who purchased them in 1928.
Another Aunt Jemima was hired in 1933 to represent the brand at the Chicago World's Fair. Anna Robinson, a large and friendly woman with the face of an angel became the company's image. She held that position until her death in 1951.
Changes came slowly with the brand. It wasn't until 1937 that Quaker Oats first registered the Aunt Jemima trademark. From the mid 50s until the late 60s Aylene Lewis became the venerable character, representing the brand at the Aunt Jemima Restaurant at a huge new attraction called Disneyland. In 1957 the company added a new line of Buttermilk Pancake & Waffle Mix. They also began advertising on a new medium called television. For the first time mothers and kids could see the tv Mom making Aunt Jemima's instead of plain pancakes. The mid 60s saw Aunt Jemima add syrup to their slowly growing line of products. Soon afterward they introduced Aunt Jemima Frozen Waffles, cashing in on the new and growing market for pre-made foods. The new decade of the 70s saw the addition of Aunt Jemima Complete Pancake & Waffle Mix, requiring just the addition of water. Also added was the line of Aunt Jemima Frozen French Toast. The company continued to roll out new and adapted versions of their breakfast food products. Additions included Aunt Jemima Lite Syrup and Butter Lite Syrup. Currently there are over 40 products sold under the Aunt Jemima name.
In a reflection of changing times and societal perceptions Aunt Jemima got a facelift in 1989. Gone was the headband and acquired was a lace collar and pearl earrings. She also underwent a radical diet, no longer being the rounded lady of yore but becoming a much more svelte and fashionable character.
The original Aunt Jemima harkened back to a period in our national history when it was common to have a 'colored cook', usually a lady of size and skill who wrought miracles in the kitchen. The original character was just such an image, one whom could easily be imagined fixing a good hot breakfast on a chilly winter morning down in the deep South. The current edition is much slimmer, and has also lost the headband which was a reminder of a time when slaves wore such headbands to catch the sweat from their labors. The Aunt Jemima of today doesn't want you to even think about working that hard, Lawd no, chile. The familiar advertising icon has been an object of black resentment at the image it portrays of black women. The resentment by and large has not extended to the women who have portrayed the character. Other ladies who have filled the role of Aunt Jemima are:
- Ann Short Harrington
- Rosie Hall
- Ethel Ernestine Harper
- Edith Wilson
These ladies have brought the advertising image to life, made it a household name and in so doing have also reflected well upon their own work. It was in the mid 50s that Aunt Jemima ceased to be a living spokesperson, the role becoming assumed by a composite image.
In many circles the term Aunt Jemima is the female counterpart to the male Uncle Tom. These terms are applied to blacks who are perceived to be too 'white', or too subservient to whitey. As recently as 2004 a radio host referred to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice as an Aunt Jemima, accusing her of being too subservient to the Bush White House. Other prominent blacks have also been tarred with the same brush. Colin Powell, former US Secretary of State, has been similarly branded.
The familiar 'Aunt' or 'Uncle' was applied to people of color who were elderly. It was a term of respect toward them, though short of the more formal 'sir' or 'ma'am' reserved for persons of a more elevated station. The usage has been viewed also as patronizing rather than respectful by many.
The image of Aunt Jemima as a racial stereotype has been the subject of study and conjecture for years. Many see the advertising icon as a troubling hurdle to overcoming the past. One such examination is a book by H. H. Manring entitled Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima. Many other works exist, examining the role played by this enduring advertising icon.