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Aunt Jemima Explained: The Old South, the Absent Mistress, and the Slave in a Box Maurice M. Manring Before . . . our joy at the demise of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom approaches the indecent, we had better ask whence they sprang, how they lived? Into what limbo have they vanished? —James Baldwin1 Peering out from every supermarket's shelves, between the Pop-Tarts and maple syrup, is a smiling riddle. Aunt Jemima brand pancake mix has been a part of American life for more than a century now, an overwhelmingly popular choice of consumers. The woman on the box has undergone numerous makeovers, but she remains the same in important ways, a symbol of some unspoken relationship among black servant women, the kitchen, and good food. This symbol remains too strong a merchandising tool for its owners, the Quaker Oats Company, to give up. AuntJemima's story should interest us for a number of reasons. She might have been the first walking, talking trademark, and the product she pitches was among the first of a wave of supposedly labor-saving products at the turn of the century. But the reasons that a nineteenth-century mammy still decorates the front of a box of ready-mix batter in the 1990s seem elusive. While the product's ingredients are listed on the side of the box,2 the qualities that make up this person , or idea, called Aunt Jemima are less apparent. Why was she ever a national spokeswoman for pancake batter? Why did this advertising campaign work so well, and what is she still doing on that pancake box in a time that supposedly has relieved itself of so many racist and sexist stereotypes in advertising—from Nigger Head golf tees to the Gold Dust Twins? What explains the presence of a black mammy on a grocery shelf in the first place? Tb answer these questions, we must first assemble a list of "ingredients" for the idea of Aunt Jemima. To make the pancake batter work, one adds water to phosphates that make the flour quickly rise on the griddle. The components that made Aunt Jemima rise in the marketing world aren't as easily identified or explained, but they are evident when we examine the years from the turn of the century to the Great Depression, when Aunt Jemima was created and her per- 20Southern Cultures sonality indelibly established in national print advertising. The ingredients are the idealized slave known as mammy, the creation of the American mass market, the rise of supposedly labor-saving household technology, and the "servant crisis." Blended together, these ingredients made Aunt Jemima. Simply identifying them, however, doesn't explain how or why they worked. Like the product itself, the idea of Aunt Jemima was modified by its owners over the years; different custodians of her image added to the mix at different times. And again, like the product itself, the idea of Aunt Jemima created by advertisers requires the customer to complete the last step of the process. So the second question is, who "added water" to the story of Aunt Jemima, and why would they have wanted to do so? The answers have much more to do with the world outside the box than anything inside it. The people responsible for creating and recreating Aunt Jemima, in chronological order, were Chris L. Rutt and Charles G. Underwood, who put the mammy's face on a product; R. T. Davis, whose marketing expertise made Aunt Jemima a truly national item; and James Webb Young and N. C. Wyeth, the advertising tandem that added the final ingredients to the mix and created the pancake mammy's definitive image. Ingredient #1: The Mammy Strangely enough, the idea of Aunt Jemima as a salesmammy indirectly resulted from two bachelors looking for a new use for cooking flour and a chance visit to a St. Joseph, Missouri, minstrel show. St. Joseph, known mostly for its brief reign as the starting point for the Pony Express, was also an important milling center on the frontier in the late 1800s. By 1888, however, the amount of flour St. Joseph's mills produced far exceeded demand. When a mill fell into bankruptcy...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 19-44
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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