In 1889, Chris Rutt, a newspaper man, along with his business partner Charles Underwood, was attempting to sell the new innovation of self-rising pancake flour. Rutt happened into a blackface minstrel house in St. Joseph, Missouri and saw Billy Kersand’s perform as “Aunt Jemima” in a bandanna and apron. The idea for his invention's mascot was born--she would be a mammy.
The mammy character began cropping up in the mid-19th century, becoming well-known in popular culture by 1850. Mammies, generally matronly, dark-skinned and large, were domestic superheroes: they could take care of the house, the children, and the cooking. Mammies’ happiness in performing slave labor was used for a larger purpose. Pre-emancipation, mammy characters were used in literature and other arts to illustrate the kinder side of slavery—mammies were content in their roles as slaves, and had no wish to leave their white families. After emancipation, the mammy figure entered popular culture as a nostalgic symbol of these loving race relations in the Old South.
Aunt Jemima became a fairly popular character by 1890, but she rocketed to national renown, however, only after Rutt and Underwood sold the trademark and image to R.J. Davis, a seasoned grocery producer from Missouri. One of Davis’ best marketing ploys was his hiring of a real-life Aunt Jemima, whom he found in the Chicago-based housekeeper, Nancy Green, to dress in mammy gear and travel to fairs, make up stories about Aunt Jemima’s life in the pre-emancipated South, and cook pancakes for her adoring crowds.
Davis also created an illustrated pamphlet called The Life of Aunt Jemima, the Most Famous Colored Woman in the World, which included a story written by Purd Wright that merged Nancy Green’s stories with aspects of other mammy stories to create Aunt Jemima’s life story. Aunt Jemima is the loyal slave to Confederate Colonel Higbee in Louisiana, and makes better pancakes than any of the white women in the area. During the Civil War, Union soldiers come to Higbee’s plantation and threaten to rip his moustache off of his face, so Aunt Jemima cooks them pancakes to stop them. The soldiers beg Jemima for her recipe, but she refuses to give it to them. Eventually, they succeed in persuading Aunt Jemima to come up river to the north and give them her pancake recipe. The soldiers pay her handsomely, but in gold and not currency.
Inauthentic slave representations like Aunt Jemima helped create a yearning in both the South and the North for the leisure of the plantation south. Nostalgic ideas like these were only exacerbated post-emancipation, in the South in particular, where food preparation traditions for white women and black cooks were quickly shifting. Both urban and rural Southern women post-emancipation changed the way they provided food for their families. Rural women spent most of their days cooking, often having to buy large portions of their food on credit in hopes that their next harvest would bring in enough money to pay off their debts, while urban women began working in larger numbers in textile factories. This type of national nostalgia for black mammies made Aunt Jemima particularly appealing; even though she was only a face on a pancake bag and box, Aunt Jemima capitalized on a complex, but loving nostalgia for mammy characters, and let white Northern and Southern women buy a mammy and cook her pancakes up for breakfast.
Nancy Green, the real-life Aunt Jemima, is a different case, however, in that both her cooking skills and her ability to transform herself into a mammy were what allowed her to move outside of the traditional domestic spheres for black women. Green’s willingness to be Aunt Jemima--not only act as Aunt Jemima--her storytelling skills, and her cooking were what caused the Davis Milling Company to choose her as their Jemima, as well as what made her so popular with white audiences. At fairs, Green’s food presentation display was housed in a large flour barrel, and her space was made to look like a kitchen. This literal move of the kitchen and the black cook outside of the home illustrates a willingness on the part of white audiences to accept a mammy in an Old Southern kitchen in their public spheres, even if she was truly a black woman from Chicago in a stylized reproduction of a southern kitchen.
Aunt Jemima brand pancake mix and syrup still features a smiling mammy, drawn with pearls and sans bandanna, on its logo, and the familiar red box is sold in supermarkets today.