Americana: Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Little Debbie

While I was growing up as an All-American boy, there were certain foods that were staples around our house:  foods like Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix and Uncle Ben’s Rice and, if my older sisters didn’t grab them first, Little Debbie Oatmeal Cakes. I’m sure that, like me, when you were a kid you thought these kindly characters were real people.

Aunt Jemima actually was…and made personal appearances!

Christopher L. Rutt and Charles G. Underwood purchased the Pearl Milling Company in 1889, and came up with the novel idea of creating a ready-mixed pancake flour. Rutt named it for a catchy tune called ‘Aunt Jemima’ which he had recently heard in a vaudeville show.

Rutt and Underwood went broke in 1890, and sold the formula for Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix to the R.T. Davis Milling Company. Davis looked for a woman to represent the product, and hired an African American woman named Nancy Green (Nov 17, 1834 – September 23, 1923) from Chicago, Illinois.

At the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago, Davis made an all-out effort to promote the new pancake mix, and built the world’s largest flour barrel. ‘Aunt Jemima’ (Nancy Green) demonstrated how to use the new mix, and the exhibit was so popular, police had to control the crowds at the Aunt Jemima booth. Nancy Green was awarded a medal and proclaimed ‘Pancake Queen’ by the Fair officials. Soon signed to a lifetime contract by Davis, Green was a hit all across the country, as she toured demonstrating the new Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, and by 1910 it was available nationally. She played the part of Aunt Jemima until her unfortunate death in a traffic accident in 1923.

In 1925 the Quaker Oats Company of Chicago purchased Aunt Jemima Mills.

Uncle Ben?  Yes Virginia…there really WAS an Uncle Ben.

In the 1910s, the German-British scientist Eric Huzenlaub (1899–1964) invented a form of parboiling designed to retain more of the nutrients in rice, now known as the Huzenlaub Process. It involves first vacuum drying of the whole grain, then steaming, and finally vacuum drying and husking. Besides increasing rice’s nutritional value, it also made it resistant to weevils and reduced cooking time.

In 1942, Huzenlaub partnered with a Houston food broker, Gordon L. Harwell, forming Converted Rice, Inc., which sold its entire output to the U.S. Armed Forces. In 1944, with additional financing from the Defense Plant Corporation and an investment by Forrest Mars, Sr., it built a second large plant. Not long afterwards, Mars bought out the founders and merged the company into his Food Manufacturers, Inc..

When white South Carolina planters were unable to make their rice crops thrive, “slaves from West Africa’s rice region tutored planters in growing the crop.”

Uncle Ben’s products carry the image of an elderly African-American man dressed in a bow tie, said to have been the visage of a Chicago maitre d’hotel named Frank Brown. According to Mars, Uncle Ben was an African-American rice grower known for the quality of his rice. Gordon L. Harwell, an entrepreneur who had supplied rice to the armed forces in World War II, chose the name Uncle Ben’s as a means to expand his marketing efforts to the general public.

In March 2007, Uncle Ben’s image was “promoted” to the “chairman of the board” by a new advertising campaign designed to distance the brand from its iconography depicting a domestic servant.

Finally, what about Little Debbie? Was she a real person?  You betcha!

In 1960, McKee Foods founder O.D. McKee was trying to come up with a catchy name for their new family-pack cartons of snack cakes. Packaging supplier Bob Mosher suggested using a family member’s name. Thinking of what could be a good fit for the brand, O.D. arrived at the name of his 4-year-old granddaughter Debbie. Inspired by a photo of Debbie in play clothes and her favorite straw hat, he decided to use the name Little Debbie and the image of her on the logo.

Not until the first cartons were being printed did Debbie’s parents, Ellsworth and Sharon McKee, discover that their daughter was the namesake of the new brand.

The first family-pack was produced in August of that year and consisted of the original snack cake, the Oatmeal Creme Pie. Family-packs were one of the first multiple-item baked goods available with individually wrapped products. The cost per carton was only 49 cents. By combining a quality product with outstanding value, Little Debbie quickly became a member of America’s households. After its initial introduction, more than 14 million cakes were sold within 10 months. While the Oatmeal Creme Pie was the original Little Debbie snack cake, there were 14 different varieties by 1964 including the ever-popular Nutty Bars, Wafer Bars and Swiss Cake Roll.

So, there you have it.  Brand names for foods that became American icons.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, gentle reader, I’ll take my leave.  I’m hungry.

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