© The Museum of Public Relations.
The Advertiser's Holy Trinity: Aunt Jemima, Rastus, and Uncle Ben
When Americans think of products advertised by African-Americans, the first three that often come to mind are Aunt Jemima, Rastus (the Cream of Wheat Chef), and Uncle Ben. These faces have become American icons, representing quality and home-cooking flavor in food production. Two of the three trademark images were developed in the nineteenth century. The third image was a product of a World War II economy and all continue to be used today.
Rastus, the Cream of Wheat chef, was created around 1890, by Emery Mapes, one of the owners of North Dakota's Diamond Milling Company. When looking for an image to adorn their company's "Middling" (Farina) breakfast porridge, Mapes, a former printer remembered the image of an African American chef used on a logo for a skillet. Using the skillet as a template, and naming the product "Cream of Wheat," the first packages were made available to the public. This logo was used until the 1920s, when the woodcut image was replaced by the face of Frank L. White, a Chicago chef who was paid five dollars to pose in a chef's hat and jacket. The face of Frank L. White has been featured on the box with only slight modifications until the present day.
Uncle Ben, whose kind face smiles out at consumers from bright orange boxes of rice, was a real person. Uncle Ben was a rice farmer from Houston, Texas whose rice crop continually won awards for its high quality. In the 1940s, Gordon L. Harwell, who later became president of Uncle Ben's Converted Rice Company was dinning in a Chicago Restaurant with his partner planning the development of this famous company, when he saw the person whose familiar face is now widely known as Uncle Ben. The men decided to name the company after Uncle Ben, after the deceased farmer whose name stood for quality. To represent Uncle Ben the men used the restaurant's maitre d', Frank Brown whom they considered a good friend. For many years the picture of Mr. Brown as Uncle Ben covered the entire box of rice, but later this trademark was moved to the upper ride side of the box. Many African Americans object to the term "Uncle" (or "Aunt") when used in this context, as it was a southern form of address first used with older enslaved peoples, since they were denied use of courtesy titles.
Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, in her book Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Rastus, calls Aunt Jemima "...the most battered woman in America..." which is true considering the battles fought to erase what this image meant in American culture. Aunt Jemima was created at the end of the 1880s in Missouri, when Chris L. Rutt and Charles G. Underwood invented an instant pancake flour.
Rutt created the trademark after a visit to the theater in 1889, where he saw minstrels in black face, aprons, and red bandannas performing a tune called "Old Aunt Jemima." The song, very popular in its day inspired Rutt to use the same image as the company logo. The company went through many changes through the years until it was acquired by Quaker Oats in 1926. During this time, seven women were known to have portrayed Aunt Jemima. These women made appearances at expositions, state fairs, stores, and in television commercials. The most famous of and the first Aunt Jemima was Nancy Green, a former slave. Green portrayed Aunt Jemima from 1893 until her death in 1923. Over the decades legends were written, to promote the idea that Aunt Jemima was a real cook who made the best pancakes in the south. When in reality it was a clever promotional strategy that made the company one of the most famous in the world.