The Many Faces of Aunt Jemima

The Many Faces of Aunt Jemima

The Many Faces of Aunt Jemima

The face of Aunt Jemima, a smiling, African American woman, on a box of pancake mix, bottle of syrup, or many other breakfast items, is a fairly ubiquitous part of American popular culture.

Many people don’t realize that the Aunt Jemima seen today on these products is a composite image, most recently updated in the 1980s, but that Aunt Jemima was originally based upon living African American women who modeled for the product dating to its earliest days.

There are ten women known to have played the role of Aunt Jemima from the 1890s through 1958. However, there are likely more who played the role and simply aren’t widely known, as it eventually became a role played by actors across the country at the same time as part of the brand’s marketing strategy.

How Aunt Jemima Came to Represent Pancakes

The origin story how Aunt Jemima came to represent a ready mix has its roots in minstrel shows popular in the 1880s and 1890s.

“Old Aunt Jemima” was a character in minstrel shows of the period. Although Aunt Jemima appeared as a character in minstrel shows in the Washington, D.C. area as early as 1864, the character wasn’t popularized until after the end of Federal Reconstruction.

Newspaper editor Chris L. Rutt, who was editor of the St. Joseph Gazette in Missouri, bought a flour mill in St. Louis in 1888. Because of a glut in the flower market, they developed what they called a “ready mix,” and sold pre-prepared pancake mix in white paper sacks. It is considered the first “ready mix” ever produced.

In 1889, Rutt claimed to have seen a minstrel show featuring a song by minstrel composer and performer Billy Kersands called “Old Aunt Jemima,” featuring an actor playing the part of the bandanna-adorned Aunt Jemima still familiar today.

Billy Kersands

Although Rutt claimed he believed that the performers were minstrel performers known as Baker and Farrell, it is possible he witnessed a performance including a vaudeville actor named Pete F. Baker—who played the role of Aunt Jemima in blackface.

Sheet music for Old Aunt Jemima. There are multiple versions of the lyrics.

The song and the Aunt Jemima character were, according to his own accounts, Rutt’s inspiration for naming the brand. The first official model for the brand was hired the following year, in 1890.

Nancy Green

The first African American woman to portray Aunt Jemima was Nancy Green, a woman born in to slavery in 1834 in Montgomery County, Kentucky.

R.T. Davis Milling Company hired her to represent the Aunt Jemima ready mix brand in 1890.

In 1893, Green introduced the product a the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where she actually cooked pancakes in a display.

An ad from the March, 1921 Ladies Home Journal showcases the story of Green’s portrayal of Aunt Jemima at the 1893 Chicago exhibition.

Following the 1893 exposition, she became a cook and for the prominent Walker family in Chicago, who became familiar with her through the exposition.

Her work at the expo was so successful, Green was given a medal and certificate by the exposition’s organizers—and a lifetime contract to portray Aunt Jemima for the R.T. Davis Milling Company.

Her lifetime appointment was the zenith of a nationwide publicity campaign that included personal appearances and merchandising. The company was ultimately renamed Aunt Jemima Mills in 1914, and Davis remained on the job until 1923.

Quaker Oats bought the R.T. Davis Milling Company in 1926.

Multiple Actresses

Some sources claim that Quaker didn’t use another actor to portray the role of Aunt Jemima until ten years after Green’s death. This, however, is incorrect.

After Green’s death, the company actually used multiple actresses to portray the role of Aunt Jemima at the same time, some assigned to work regionally around the nation. A few had their images used in print advertising and on product packaging.

Lillian Richard

Lillian Richard working as Aunt Jemima.

Richard was hired to portray Aunt Jemima in 1925.

Born in Hawkins, Wood County, Texas and raised in nearby Fouke, left East Texas for Dallas in 1910, and in 1925 was offered a job by Quaker Oats as one of the Aunt Jemima models, and she demonstrated the products in stores around the South.

Richard continued in the role until suffering a stroke in 1948. She eventually returned to her hometown of Hawkins, and was recognized locally as a celebrity for her work.

Rosie Lee Moore

Rosie Lee Moore’s likeness on a pin-back.

Rosie Lee Moore Hall (sometimes referred to as Rosa Lee Hall) is another Texas native who portrayed the role of Aunt Jemima. Born in Pin Oak in Robertson County near Hearne in 1899 the eldest of 14 children, Moore left the Hearne area in her 20s after a failed marriage, ultimately settling in Oklahoma City, where she went to work for Quaker Oats.

Moore worked in the advertising department when she applied for the role, and began playing Aunt Jemima in 1950. She portrayed Aunt Jemima until her death in 1967.

Among the annual events she worked was the State Fair of Texas.

Anna Robinson

Robinson as Aunt Jemima, although many online sources erroneously list the image as portraying Nancy Green.

Anna Robinson was hired to play Aunt Jemima for Quaker’s promotions at the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1933.

Although Nancy Green popularized Aunt Jemima for R.T. Davis Milling in the late 19th century and later for Quaker in the early 20th century, Anna Robinson truly helped turned the icon in to a household name and marketing force in 20th century popular culture.

Robinson and the Chicago Worlds Fair Quaker Oats exhibit.

The campaigns that Quaker and its advertising designers developed around Robinson as Aunt Jemima are so successful they are today recounted in advertising histories and textbooks.

An advertising campaign was designed by the Lord and Thomas Advertising Agency for Quaker that resulted in personal appearances and Robinson posing as Aunt Jemima with a parade of celebrities. The ad campaign is considered one of the most successful of its time. Nationally-recognized commercial artist Haddon Sunblom ultimately was hired to paint a portrait of Robinson, and the packaging of Aunt Jemima products was redeveloped around the painting.

Robinson remained on the Quaker payroll until her death in 1951, but it is unclear exactly how many years actively she portrayed Aunt Jemima.

Aylene Lewis

Lewis as Aunt Jemima at Disneyland.

Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House opened at Disneyland in Anaheim, California in 1955.

According to most sources, Aylene Lewis began playing the role of Aunt Jemima in the restaurant in 1957. Lewis regularly posed for photographs with visitors, sang, and even served patrons. Among the famous people she met during her tenure was Indian Prime Minister Nehru. She reportedly had a close friendship with Walt Disney.

In 1962, the restaurant was remodeled and took over the adjacent space previously occupied by Don DeFore’s Silver Banjo Barbecue, becoming Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen and expanding its menu. It kept the name until 1970. The restaurant was actually a chain which operated in several places around the United States.

Lewis portrayed the role at the theme park until around the time of her death in 1964.

Edith Wilson

Edith Wilson as Aunt Jemima in 1956 at the Seattle Kiwanis Club’s pancake breakfast. Note the man and woman behind her are wearing buttons with the Jemima likeness.

Edith Wilson, an actress and singer whose credits included the radio program Amos and Andy and the 1944 film To Have and Have Not.

Wilson became one of the faces of Aunt Jemima sometime between 1948 and 1950, and continued in that role with radio, television, and personal appearances until 1966. Some sources cite 1948, although an announcement of Wilson’s role appeared in the Chicago Defender in March, 1950.

An accomplished blues singer, she was the first black woman to record for a major record company when she recorded “Nervous Blues” in 1921 for Columbia Records.

Famous songwriters wrote pieces for Wilson, including Fats Waller who wrote “Black and Blue” for her, and George Gershwin, who wrote “Yankee Doodle Blues,” for Wilson to record.

She died in 1981.

Maude Woodfork McElroy

Maude McElroy is only known to have played the role of Aunt Jemima on radio, and was selected from 80 applicants for radio portrayal of Aunt Jemima in 1947, for a new Quaker Oats radio program.

She was a native of Lebanon Tennessee, and attended Tennessee State College, and later became a public school teacher. She taught drama for the Works Project Administration and appeared on a Los Angeles Times radio station program.

She also was part of one of the first groups to win a “radio marathon,” by staying on the air 168 hours without interruption. She played the role of Uncle Remus’ granddaughter and sang and told stories during the marathon.

Edith Murray Bruce

A veteran of show business for six decades, Edith Murray Bruce portrayed Aunt Jemima for a number of years, and her image was reportedly used on the pancake mix cover in at least some markets. Little is known about her, and she died in 1954. It is unclear when she played the Jemima role.

Pearl Scott

Pearl Scott was portraying Aunt Jemima for Quaker Oats in the mid-to-late 1950s. In 1956, she was interviewed for the New York Amsterdam News and discussed changing the uniform of the character, and refusing to turn the job in to a “sideshow.”

She also claimed she insisted on serving racially-integrated audiences in the American South on a first-come, first-served, basis.

Agnes Moody

Agnes Moody was hired to portray Aunt Jemima at the “Paris Exposition,”—presumably the Paris Colonial Exposition or Exposition coloniale international, in 1931.

Phil Brown of Louisville, Kentucky was hired to search for someone to play Jemima at the exposition. He looked for a potential subject in African American churches before finding Moody singing in the choir of Chicago’s Bethel AME Church at 30th and Dearborn Streets. The exhibit won a Gold Medal at the exposition. She reportedly continued to work for the company some until her death. When that was is not clear.

Ethel Ernestine Harper

Harper as Aunt Jemima, 1955.

Left an orphan when she was nine, and raised by her brother in Alabama, Ethel Ernestine Harper graduated from college at 17 before becoming a teacher.

She was the only daughter and youngest child of Wiley W. Harper and Emma Louise Jones Harper.

She moved to New York City, where she began a successful career in show business. Among her roles were in 1939, when she appeared in the Broadway production of The Hot Mikado.

After returning from a European tour around 1956, she had a chance encounter with Edith Wilson—who also played the role of Aunt Jemima for Quaker—and who encouraged her to audition for the job. Wilson had previously encouraged Harper to apply, but she had not.

Harper was the last living person to play Aunt Jemima. She played the role until 1958. It was Harper’s face that graced billboards, advertising, and boxes until the 1960s when Quaker Oats crafted a more generic Aunt Jemima not based specifically off one individual.

In later years, Harper was a strong defender of the use of the Aunt Jemima image by Quaker, noting that it had transcended the southern Mammy cliché, thanks in part to her work and that of Edith Wilson.

Harper died in New Jersey in 1979.

Anna Short Harrington

Anna Short Harrington as Aunt Jemima

Born near Cheraw, South Carolina, to Daniel and Lelia Short—presumably sharecroppers on the plantation of Frank Brooks Pegues, Anna Short Harrington moved to North Carolina when she was nine.

Between 1933 and 1935, Harrington took a job as a cook at Syracuse University. Her pancakes were a favorite of students and gained media attention, which ultimately reached executives at Quaker Oats.

Subsequently hired by Quaker Oats, she traveled the nation as Aunt Jemima. She died in 1955.

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