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The Woman Behind Aunt Jemima

February 22, 2013

She was not only one of the greatest advertising icons of all time, but Aunt Jemima was also the advertising world's first living trademark. And, as with any such icon, she's had her fair share of controversy. But did you know who the real Aunt Jemima was?

Born into slavery in 1834, the woman who would become known to millions as Aunt Jemima was really named Nancy Green. She was a warm, friendly woman who also happened to be an excellent cook (though, interestingly enough, the famous Aunt Jemima pancake recipe wasn't hers. It belonged to a company called the Pearl Milling Company). And it was in 1893 that she was discovered in Chicago, at the age of 59, by one R.T. Davis.

Head of the R.T. Davis Milling Company, Davis bought the pancake formula from Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood when the Pearl Milling Company went bankrupt. And though it was Rutt and Underwood who came up with the name "Aunt Jemima," it was Davis who decided to use a living person to endorse it.

History was made that year at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the very first time Nancy Green went public. It was there that she, with her charming and animated personality, engaged the crowds and supplied them with thousands of pancakes. In fact, she was such a sensation that police had to be assigned to keep the crowds moving!

The rest of the story made marketing history. Soon, Nancy Green signed a lifetime contract with Davis, and her image was on billboards and advertisements all over the world. Davis was up to his eyeballs in pancake orders, and flour sales skyrocketed. Even after the Davis Company had to sell years later, Nancy Green remained the "pancake queen." It wasn't until 1923 when her legacy as a living trademark ended - when she was tragically struck and killed by a car in downtown Chicago. Two years later, the Aunt Jemima Mills were purchased by the Quaker Oats Company.

The famous image of Aunt Jemima was based on the real image of Nancy Green, an original painting of which recently sold for $9,030 at MastroNet. This painting was rendered by A.B. Frost, now regarded as one of the great illustrators of the Golden Age of American Illustration.

Aunt Jemima's image, however, has been modified since the days of Nancy Green and A.B. Frost. As social climates started to change and the 20th century wore on, many became offended by Aunt Jemima's image and felt that it was an outdated and negative portrayal of an African-American woman. If you take a look at today's Aunt Jemima, you'll notice that her kerchief is gone and her hair is styled. She wears earrings, and appears slimmer and younger. She does, however, have the same warm and inviting smile that she's always had.

Aunt Jemima has a rich history spanning over 120 years. Read on to learn more about important milestones in the fascinating history of the Aunt Jemima brand.

Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood of the Pearl Milling Company developed Aunt Jemima, the first ready mix.

R.T. Davis purchased the struggling Aunt Jemima Manufacturing Company. He then brought the Aunt Jemima character to life when he hired Nancy Green as his spokeswoman.

The image of Aunt Jemima was so popular that the company was renamed the Aunt Jemima Mills Company.

The Quaker Oats Company purchased the Aunt Jemima Mills Company.

For the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, the advertising planners decided to bring the Aunt Jemima character back to life. They hired Anna Robinson, described as a large, gregarious woman with the face of an angel. She traveled the country promoting Aunt Jemima until her death in 1951.

Quaker’s first registration of the Aunt Jemima trademark occurred in April, 1937.

From the mid 1950’s until the late 1960’s Aylene Lewis was hired to portray Aunt Jemima at the Aunt Jemima restaurant in the newly opened Disneyland.

Quaker introduced Aunt Jemima Buttermilk Pancake & Waffle Mix. Also at this time, Quaker began to advertise on television, showing kids and moms making not just pancakes but, “Aunt Jemimas”.

Quaker introduced syrup under the Aunt Jemima trademark and used the campaign, “Aunt Jemima, what took you so long?”.

Quaker introduced the Aunt Jemima frozen waffle and advertised it with a “toaster jingle”. In the same year Quaker also began the seven years running campaign using the song, “Aunt Jemima Syrup, Pancakes or Waffles without her…”.

Quaker introduced two new items geared towards convenience: Aunt Jemima Complete Pancake & Waffle Mix (“Just Add Water”) and Aunt Jemima Frozen French Toast.

Quaker introduced Aunt Jemima Lite Syrup and featured a “Lite Contest” message on television, which ran for the next three years.

Quaker began a campaign for frozen products, “Just Like Mommy Makes.” The campaign ran for four years.

Quaker introduced Aunt Jemima Butter Lite syrup.

Another campaign, “Nothing Could be Finer” promoted all of the Aunt Jemima products.

In 1989, the image of Aunt Jemima was updated by removing her headband and giving her pearl earrings and a lace collar.

Quaker introduced Aunt Jemima Butter Rich syrup.

During a frozen package redesign Quaker tilted Aunt Jemima’s head into a more upright position.

Aunt Jemima frozen products were licensed out to Pinnacle Foods Corporation.

The Aunt Jemima products continue to stand for warmth, nourishment and trust – qualities you’ll find in loving moms from diverse backgrounds who care for and want the very best for their families.

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