Original pancake mix with the most recent Aunt Jemima update, circa 1989. I’ve been unable to learn the name of the woman whose image is used in the current packaging; she may be a composite.
This is a brand name whose racist roots are only thinly covered by a modern mascot. It’s a troubled name that hurts far more than it helps. Its retirement is decades overdue.
It was called Aunt Jemima from the start, a name inspired by a character in post-Civil War minstrel shows; she appeared in song titles like “Old Aunt Jemima” (1876), “Aunt Jemima’s Lullaby” (1896) and “The Aunt Jemima Slide” (1917). (The oldest of these songs was composed and performed by Billy Kersands, an African American comedian and dancer.) As a mascot, Aunt Jemima represented the “mammy” stereotype, described in an article on the Jim Crow Museum website:
From slavery through the Jim Crow era, the mammy image served the political, social, and economic interests of mainstream white America. During slavery, the mammy caricature was posited as proof that blacks -- in this case, black women -- were contented, even happy, as slaves. Her wide grin, hearty laugher, and loyal servitude were offered as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery.
Undated flyer for Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Flour, via Do You Remember?
The original Aunt Jemima product, a pancake mix, was introduced in 1889 by the Pearl Milling Company of St. Joseph, Missouri. A year later, Pearl Milling sold the company to the Randolph Truett Davis Milling Company, also of St. Joseph. Looking for a way to promote the pancake mix at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the Davis Milling Company hired Nancy Green, a 60-year-old woman who had been born into slavery, to portray the Aunt Jemima character. Green demonstrated the mix, served pancakes to the crowds, told stories, and sang.
Portrait of Nancy Green in character as Aunt Jemima, by A.B. Green. Via Wikipedia.
In 1913, the Davis Milling Company changed its name to Aunt Jemima Mills; in 1926, the Quaker Oats Company bought it. (Quaker had been founded in 1877. According to a Wikipedia entry, “[t]he name was chosen when Quaker Mill partner Henry Seymour found an encyclopedia article on Quakers and decided that the qualities described — integrity, honesty, purity — provided an appropriate identity for the company's oat product.”)
Green portrayed Aunt Jemima until her death in 1923 in a bizarre car-truck collision. (She was a pedestrian.) Lillian Richard portrayed Aunt Jemima from 1925 to 1948, sharing the role at various times with Anna Robinson and Anna Short Harrington. After Harrington’s death in 1955, Ethel Ernestine Harper became the first person to portray the Aunt Jemima character in television advertising. In 1989, to commemorate the brand’s 100th anniversary, the character’s image was updated: for the first time, she didn’t wear a kerchief and apron.
In 2001, Pepsico bought the Quaker Oats Company for $13.8 billion. Long before that acquisition there had been calls to change the Aunt Jemima name—here’s NPR commentator Vertamae Grosvenor in 1980, calling “Aunt Jemima” a “negative American myth.” In 2017, Adweek reports, “Dan Gasby, partner of restaurateur, cookbook author and lifestyle guru B. Smith, petitioned PepsiCo to eliminate the brand name and mascot in a Change.org campaign called Set Her Free. According to Gasby, Pepsico said Aunt Jemima was wholesome, and they didn’t feel the need to change the brand.”
Finally, during this season of pandemic and protest, Quaker and Pepsico did the right thing.
A cringe-y Aunt Jemima ad that appeared in Women’s Day in 1945. More here.
It didn’t take long after Wednesday’s announcement for the predictable backlash to occur. New York Times commenter “Ken” lamented the loss of “sacred, irreplaceable traditions.” On Twitter, an anonymous user huffed about “grovelling to an obnoxiously vocal small number of people.”
A brand isn’t sacred or irreplaceable. The complainers are the minority. Quaker and Pepsico are to be commended. So is Uncle Ben’s, which has promised to “evolve.” And Mrs. Butterworth—which has a more ambiguous brand image that is perceived by some people as racially insensitive—is undergoing review.
“The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972), by African American artist Betye Saar (1926–)
Bring it all on, I say. (And while we’re at it, let’s finally do something about the Washington Redskins.) If Blue Ribbon Sports, Confinity, and Brad’s Drink* can change their names for less significant reasons, certainly the American buying public can accept new names and looks for old, stigmatized brands.
The next time any conservative tells you to toughen up, please remind them that they spent today in mourning because a nonexistent black woman will no longer be available to serve them fake maple syrup.— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) June 17, 2020
Here’s something I wrote in 2014 about other troubled brands:
Tradition matters. Brand equity matters. But you know what also matter? Respect, relevance, and maturity.
How to tell whether a troublesome name should be replaced? Here’s some sane advice from an unexpected source: the scientist and science-fiction writer David Brin. He proposed “a simple rule of thumb” in his blog last October:
If the name trivializes or mocks or derides, it should go. If the symbolism is belittling and mocking, it should be punished as soon as possible.
A two-minute history of Aunt Jemima.
Meet Nancy Green, the real Aunt Jemima. If Quaker wanted to retain a sense of history but lose the minstrel-show trappings, it might consider renaming the brand “Nancy Green,” or some variation.
* Now known as Nike, PayPal, and Pepsi-Cola, respectively