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So Quaker Oats is finally dropping the Aunt Jemima brand. What’s the origin story there? I’ve read a lot of debate about it. And did they make it in Cedar Rapids? —RB, Iowa City, via the Your Village feature on LV’s homepage
On June 17, Quaker Oats announced it was finally giving up on trying to package its Aunt Jemima products — including the syrup made in Cedar Rapids — in a way that would obscure the racism inherent in the brand. The company had been trying to do that since 1967, when it stopped hiring women to portray the character of Aunt Jemima.
There had been a series of efforts to rework the appearance of the character who was now only an illustration, and even a brief attempt in 1994 to make singer Gladys Knight the spokesperson for the product, but with renewed national discussion about racism following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, Quaker Oats decided it was better to keep the pancake mix and syrup and give up the character inspired by a minstrel show song.
“We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” Kristin Kroepfl, Quaker Oats’ vice president and chief marketing officer, said in a statement. “As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers’ expectations.”
Of course, the Quaker Oats executives who bought the Aunt Jemima brand in 1926 also would have recognized the racial stereotype Aunt Jemima represented. But they would have seen it as a selling point.
By then, Aunt Jemima was the most famous “mammy” character in America. She seemed to embody two things white consumers of the era, and ones that followed, found appealing. First, she was a smiling face who implicitly reassured them that slavery, Jim Crow and other brutal manifestations of racism weren’t that bad for someone who had the right attitude. And second, she represented a great cook.
The pancake mix was invented in 1888. That year, Chris Rutt, a newspaper editor by trade, and his friend Charles Underwood bought a flour mill in Missouri. They came up with the idea of selling some of their flour in paper bags labeled “Self-Rising Pancake Flour.” But the following year, Rutt had an idea.
Henry Parson Crowell had already demonstrated how powerful a brand character can be with the Quaker of his Quaker Oats’ brand. Starting in 1882, the non-Quaker Crowell had been immensely successful using the image of a Quaker to sell packaged oats. Quakers had a reputation for honesty and decency — two qualities seldom associated with food manufacturers of the period — and Crowell exploited it.
When Rutt chose Aunt Jemima as his brand’s character, he was looking for different qualities to exploit.
Since the 1830s, there was a whole genre of American literature and popular songs that portrayed Southern plantations as the epitome of easy, gracious living, instead of big houses in forced labor camps, where the people who enslaved the workers lived.
The mammy figure was a “happy slave” stereotype well known in America by 1889. A mammy was cheerful with a big personality. She had boundless love for the white family she served, and—critically for Rutt—was always a great cook. Aunt Jemima was supposed to charm consumers, and make them associate the product with easy living and good cooking.
The name Aunt Jemima came from minstrel shows. A song about a mammy called “Old Aunt Jemima” was a staple in these racist performances in the late 19th century, and the character was often performed in shows by white men in blackface wearing dresses with aprons and kerchiefs on their heads. Rutt chose the ready-made character as the brand image of his ready-made pancake mix.
But Aunt Jemima couldn’t save Rutt and Underwood. In 1890, they sold the business to the Davis Milling Company.
R.T. Davis improved the mix, heavily marketed the character and achieved great success. In 1914, he changed the name of his business to Aunt Jemima Mills Company. But Davis never would have had that success without Nancy Green, the first woman to portray the corporate symbol.
Green was hired to play Aunt Jemima at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Davis saw the fair as a huge marketing opportunity, and was determined to have a real-life Aunt Jemima promoting his pancake mix there. One of his executives knew Green, who worked as cook and housekeeper for a judge in Chicago.
Dressed like the mammy people expected to see and pretending to be the real Aunt Jemima, Green cooked and served pancakes. She also sang and told stories about her happy days on a plantation near New Orleans. Green, who was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1843, worked from a script based on a fictional biography the company created for Aunt Jemima.
Green was a huge hit. Davis got the publicity he wanted, and for many years used Green as Aunt Jemima at other events. The company got rich, but Green didn’t. According to the 1910 census, she was still working as a housekeeper.
When she died in 1923, newspapers around the country ran stories about the death of Aunt Jemima. Only newspapers serving black communities explained Green helped found a large church in Chicago, was active in missionary work and was a leader in many community betterment projects.
“Aunt Jemima” didn’t die. Seven more women portrayed the character after Green.
Since the ’60s, Quaker Oats has tried to keep what it sees as benefits of the Aunt Jemima character while burying the racist tropes underlying her. But every change just brought renewed attention to the character’s origin.
A new name for the brand will be announced next year, and Quaker Oats says the product won’t change. The syrup made in Cedar Rapids will continue to be the same mixture of high-fructose corn syrup, cellulose gum, sodium hexametaphosphate and other ingredients it currently is.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 284.