Food history: Betty Crocker

Betty Crocker is somewhat akin to Santa Claus – they both have provided love and guidance to millions over the years, and they can both appreciate a good chocolate chip cookie.

And, they both don’t exist. 

Considered to be possibly one of the best marketing brands in history, Betty Crocker is the brainchild of some clever advertising folks at General Mills.

Before General Mills was General Mills, it was the Washburn Crosby Company, which started up in the late 1800s. One of their prized products was Gold Medal Flour.

In 1921, a newspaper ad for the flour included a puzzle of a milling scene. Consumers were encouraged to complete the puzzle and send it in. The prize was a pincushion in the shape of a sack of Gold Medal Flour.

Somewhere of 30,000 puzzles came in, and they came with questions and concerns about baking and cooking. Back before the good old internet, home cooks couldn’t Google “How do I make my cake rise?” or “How do I make pancakes fluffy?”

Washburn Crosby/General Mills was overwhelmed with the response, but also quite dedicated to their customer service – they had a policy that every letter must be answered. The department manager for the company’s small advertising department, Samuel Gale, had to consult with the home economists hired on staff in how to answer these questions.

(General Mills and the other food giants at the time were on the rise of hiring educated home cooks to be a part of their team – a hugely successful venture.)

Gale did not want to sign his name to the letter responses, because he felt that these women writing in would want to hear back from a woman. 

This would probably be considered horrifically offensive and sexist in today’s time, but I really don’t think it is. Especially at this time, women really were doing more of the cooking at home, so it was what it was.

Housewives would trust another housewife going through the same things they go through, before they would listen to a faceless male executive at some giant conglomerate. 

In a rather genius move, Gale and his team decided to create a female persona for the company who would answer customers’ pertinent questions, and otherwise be the face of this part of the organization.

Hence, Betty Crocker was created in 1921. “Betty” was simply a well-rounded, happy female name; “Crocker” was named for a recently retired employee, William G. Crocker.

All the home economics professionals at the company pooled their knowledge together to write back to these thousands of questioning consumers. All of them were, in a real way, collectively embodying Betty Crocker. Later, they would literally be the face of Betty Crocker, too.

Gale invited these female employees to submit signatures for Betty Crocker, and a woman named Florence Lindegerg won.

In 1924, Betty Crocker gained a voice. General Mills saved a radio station from going out of business, and in return, they provided a “Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air” radio show. Marjorie Child Husted, writer and host of the show, provided the voice.

In 1926, our Betty Crocker received a face. Neysa McMein produced the first official portrait of Betty Crocker, a painting that actually blended the facial features of all the female staff in the home service department of General Mills.

As we can see, those employees really did personify the essence of Betty Crocker in every way. This picture would be used for over 20 years.

In 1945, Betty Crocker was named the second most popular woman in America by Fortune Magazine, second only to Eleanor Roosevelt.

Also that year, Betty Crocker contributed to a radio program called “Our Nation’s Rations” to help homemakers find uses for their limited food rations – a necessity because of the war. A Betty Crocker publication, Thru Highway to Good Nutrition, received national recognition by the American Red Cross for outstanding service in the nation’s interest.

In 1947, Betty Crocker’s first boxed cake mix debuted, what is now probably her most popular product. Cake mixes had been sold by other companies for a couple of decades at this point, and General Mills wanted to jump on the bandwagon.

At this time, on the cusp of the 1950s, housewives-providing-for-their-family-era, Betty Crocker’s customers were hesitant to try a boxed cake mix – it seemed to fly in the face of good old fashioned, home cooking.  

General Mills conducted research and determined part of the problem was the powdered or dried egg – it was decided it should be removed, and cooks can use their own eggs. General Mills marketed Betty’s cake mixes this way, differentiating them from the competition. Betty Crocker’s Ginger Cake was the first mix to appear on shelves.

In 1948, a baker named Harry Baker (…) attempted to combine a butter and sponge cake together. It was very well received, and he would not give away what made it so special. Baker attempted to sell it to General Mills, but they wouldn’t buy without knowing the secret. 

Reportedly, the ingredients were simply flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, five egg yolks, one cup egg whites, lemon rind, cream of tartar, and then, instead of shortening, cooking oil.

General Mills purchased the cake creation, spent close to a year refining it, and then debuted the recipe for Betty Crocker’s Orange Chiffon Cake in Better Homes and Garden and two other publications – it was one of the more expensive cakes to make.

In 1950, the first Betty Crocker Cookbook was published, written by Agnes White Tizard, a nutritionist. The book was originally titled Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book and then turned into the Betty Crocker Cookbook. Further editions followed, and millions of cookbooks have been sold.

In 1951, Betty Crocker broke into television when actress Adelaide Hawley was hired to play the fictitious woman. Since then, many women have played her. 

In 1953, Betty Crocker cake mixes scored higher than any other brand during a testing of boxed cakes, according to Consumer Reports.

In 1954, the Betty Crocker Search for the All-American Homemaker of Tomorrow was created and continued until 1977. High school seniors went up against one another for college scholarships based on their cooking, baking, and additional home economics skills.

Also in 1954, the iconic Betty Crocker red spoon logo, still used today, was created. The image has changed just barely since then, unlike Betty Crocker’s face.

Since the mid-1950s, Betty’s picture was updated several times, although she never seemed to age. In 1996, Betty Crocker went ethnic with a more olive skin tone. Painter John Stuart Ingle created this version of her by digitally combining photographs of 75 women that had been preapproved by General Mills.

Beginning in the 1980s, Betty Crocker’s monthly recipe magazine began being circulated at grocery stores, as it still does today.

In 2006, the Betty Crocker Catalog went out of business, but of course we can find her online as well as in her cookbooks, and magazine.

She undoubtedly has been a raging success from the beginning, and continues to be so today – this in spite of her lack of, um, being a human being.

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