Mammy Her Life And Times


It was as a commercial icon that Mammy was sharpest. Customers confronted with commercial Mammies were disarmed by laughing at her caricature but sold by her positive qualities—her asserted knowledge of food and housekeeping. In Sambo: The Rise & Demise of an American Jester , Joseph Boskin shows that food products made the most use of Mammy, Sambo, and other black caricatures. As idealized servant types they suggested heartiness, quality, and the approval of those who really ran the kitchen. “Always clean, ready to serve with a crisp smile, intuitively knowledgeable and distinctively southern in their spoken words, they epitomized servility with exceptionally natural cheerfulness,” Boskin writes. Mammy and her kin were images as prepackaged as the sort of products they advertised—new sorts of brand-name, processed products, in a world where generic flour, oatmeal, and rice were still the rule. As early as 1875 the Mammy-like “Aunt Sally” had appeared on cans of baking powder, one of the first products to be branded. But if the Cream of Wheat chef was unabashedly touted as “De Bes’ Known nigger [later man ] in the world,” it was Aunt Jemima who lasted the longest.


Jemima’s story, as sketched out in Jackie Young’s Black Collectables: Mammy and Her Friends , began in 1889 when Charles Rutt, a St. Joseph, Missouri, newspaper editor, got the idea for a self-rising pancake mix that required the addition only of water. He took the name Aunt Jemima from a vaudeville song of the time; R. T. Davis Mills in St. Joseph bought the idea, and with it the supporting story.

To give character to the logo—wide-mouthed, rag-headed, crudely rendered—Davis Mills invented a whole legend. Aunt Jemima, the story went, had been a cook on the Louisiana plantation of a certain Colonel Higbee, and her reputation for fine pancakes had spread far and wide. Ads showed smiling belles and laughing older white gentlemen trying to wheedle the “secret recipe” out of the reticent and loyal Jemima. But somehow, the story went on, the shy Jemima had been persuaded not only to relinquish the secret to the Davis Mills but to tour the states, like a patent-medicine salesman, championing its wonders from the top of a flour barrel.

Jemima premiered for a national audience at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago—from which blacks were largely excluded from exhibiting. (Frederick Douglass called it a “Whited Sepulcher.”) Her popularity was immediate. She quickly acquired a family: Uncle Mose, Diana, and Wade, who appeared as rag-doll covers included in the boxes of the pancake mix, to be filled with paper or rags by the customer. Later, mail- ing in box tops or redeeming coupons would get you Aunt Jemima mixing bowls, syrup pitchers, cookie jars, or salt and pepper shakers. There were also cookbooks and pamphlets with her “temptilatin’” recipes.


Nancy Green and her successors as Aunt Jemima traveled from town to town, cooking up pancakes. Local organizations tied into the promotions. One souvenir of such trips, highly valuable today, is a portable griddle complete with syrup and seasoning shakers all in the familiar red-skirted shape of Jemima. “I’se in town, honey” was a slogan that lasted for more than half a century after it was introduced in 1905.

Nancy Green died in a car accident in the early twenties, after the character she represented had been redrawn in 1917 to reflect a less cartoonish, more maternal figure. In 1925 Davis sold the Aunt Jemima brand and operation to Quaker Oats, whose gentle William Penn figure was about the same age. In the 1950s Jemima took on the face of the actress Edith Wilson, formerly a star of “Amos ’n’ Andy” on radio and the movie To Have and Have Not . She served as the touring Aunt Jemima for eighteen years. Ethel Ernestine Harper, one of the women who succeeded her, sang with the Three Ginger Snaps and appeared in The Hot Mikado with Bill Boj angles Robinson before taking the role. She died in a car crash in 1979.


Aunt Jemima was updated—made thinner and lighter—in 1968. But not until 1989, and only after the company had carried out five months of delicate research in twelve cities, did she get her present face—a sort of Diahann Carroll look, slimmer and lighter. The aim, Quaker said, was to “present Aunt Jemima in a more contemporary light, while preserving the important attributes of warmth, quality, good taste, heritage, and reliability.” Aunt Jemima had lost her kerchief.

But Aunt Jemima was only Mammy’s best-known commercial identity. She also sold Luzianne coffee and cleansers and appeared in cereal ads. Mammy beamed from fruit-box labels and sold molasses. As assurance of concerned family-style cooking, she graced menus for the Old Dixie Restaurant in Los Angeles and Mammy’s Cabin outside Atlanta. She became a figure in all sorts of kitchen and other equipment. In July 1930 one Lilly Daigre-Gore of New Orleans filed a design patent for a smoker’s stand whose tray stood atop a Mammy figure’s head. It could hold pot holders and grocery lists.