Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Aunt Jemima Visits Jay's I.G.A. – March 1953

Here's an interesting full-page ad for Jay's I.G.A. Food Liner, which was located at Oberlin Avenue and Meister Road. It opened on March 6, 1952 and the ad at left – which appeared in The Lorain Journal on March 4, 1953 – apparently was celebrating both the grocery store's one year anniversary as well as the expansion of the shopping center strip to include Willow Hardware, which opened at that time in 1953.

The point of interest of the ad is the appearance of Aunt Jemima in person at Jay's, cooking up her famous ready-mix pancakes.

Aunt Jemima Pancakes had been around since 1889. That's when Chris Rutt, one of the owners of the Pearl Milling Company of St. Joseph Missouri, appropriated the Aunt Jemima southern "mammy" character from a performer in a minstrel show to be the name and advertising mascot of his self-rising pancake flour.

The brand later passed to the R.T. Davis Milling Company, which successfully employed an ex-slave – Nancy Green – to bring the Aunt Jemima character to life at wildly popular pancake demonstrations at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. As described in the book Brands, Trademarks and Good Will – The Quaker Oats Story by Arthur Marquette, Nancy Green as Aunt Jemima "presided at her griddle, cooking pancakes for the crowd, trading greetings, singing songs and telling stories of the Old South. Her routine was a lively combination of folklore, wisdom and fun."

The current package
Later, when Quaker Oats had acquired the brand, the idea of using of a real-life Aunt Jemima was revived in the 1930s to great success by having Anna Robinson make personal appearances as the character. She was so well-received and beloved by the public as Aunt Jemima that Haddon Sundblom – now known for his renderings of the Quaker Oats man trademark as well as Coca-Cola's Santa Claus – was hired to create an illustration of her for the package. (That's Anna Robinson in the 1953 ad for Jay's, and a modified and updated version of the illustration of her still appears on the package today.)

Understandably, by the early 1960s, the NAACP strenuously objected to the Aunt Jemima name and trademark – specifically because the character as originally conceived was a slave. The organization called for a boycott of Aunt Jemima products and many local chapters protested the personal appearances that were still taking place at grocery stores and trade shows.

I have mixed feelings about the whole thing.

In preparation for this post, I read the book Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima by M. M. Manring, and the author makes a very convincing argument that the Aunt Jemima brand is utterly offensive and demeaning to African Americans. He points to the long-running Aunt Jemima advertising campaign during the 1920s and 30s which created a whole backstory for the character as a slave well-known in the Old South for her pancakes, who later (after she was freed) sold her recipe to Yankee businessmen. Later advertisements in the 40s and 50s featured Aunt Jemima butchering the English language in a cartoonish, stereotypical dialect that's pretty racist.

On the other hand, an argument is made in the book Brands, Trademarks and Good Will – The Quaker Oats Story that the character of Aunt Jemima as originally conceived was an affectionate tribute to the extraordinary culinary talents of African-American cooks.

In our house while I was growing up, Mom made Aunt Jemima pancakes a lot. So when I see Aunt Jemima's smiling face on the package today, my only thought is of those family pancake dinners in the 60s and 70s.

Anyway, since I started preparing this post last week, I've made Aunt Jemima's famous pancakes twice! They were as good as I remembered.


-Alan D Hopewell said...

I'm black (at least, so says my membership card), and all Aunt Jemima ever meant to me was darn good pancakes.

Dan Brady said...

I was wondering what you would think of all this, Alan! Your opinion means a lot.

And they really are fantastic pancakes, I've made two batches in the last week and a half and ate them all myself! I even made a sandwich out of the leftover one which I made double-size!