In 1921, Minneapolis grain miller, Washburn Crosby Company, ran a promotion in Saturday Evening Post magazine for one of its well-known brands, Gold Medal flour. The ad asked consumers to complete a simple jigsaw puzzle and return it to the company to receive a small pin cushion in return. The promotion was a resounding success, with over 30,000 responses submitted to the company. In addition to receiving the completed puzzles, Washburn Crosby unexpectedly received several hundred letters containing cooking and baking questions.
A Star is Born
Caution: spoiler alert ahead.
Like any budding post-war capitalist would do, Washburn Crosby turned the unexpected response into a marketing opportunity by creating a fictional character with the pen name, Betty Crocker (sorry kids, she’s not real). Each person who sent a letter or question received an individual reply from Betty (actually, from the organization’s Home Service department). Thanks to a strong PR campaign, Betty Crocker soon become known by consumers as “The First Lady of Food”.
The Evolution of an Icon
Author Susan Marks provides an in-depth and enjoyable look at this food icon in her book, Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food. The book is nostalgic, well researched, well written, and deftly shows how General Mills adapted the Betty Crocker persona to evolve with the times and fit with ever-changing consumer trends. The book is most compelling in the early chapters, where Marks not only focuses on the developing image of Betty Crocker in the United States, but also on her symbiotic relationship with the American housewife, particularly during the Great Depression and World War II.
The Icing on the Cake
The book is sprinkled with vintage black-and-white photographs, advertisements, recipes, magazine spreads, and fan letters to Betty from consumers (at the height of her popularity she received over 5,000 letters a day). These details further reinforce the profound effect Betty had on shaping the face of American homemaking. Linkages to Hollywood, a look at the various incarnations of the “Betty Crocker Kitchens”, and how Betty’s visual appearance evolved over the years round out Marks’ story. The end result is a book that informs, entertains, and provides insight into the creation of a persona that has become synonymous with the quest for culinary excellence.
I was thankful to discover this book when writing, Light Bulb Baking: A History of the Easy Bake® Oven, and Marks’ work helped with my own research into the co-branding of Betty Crocker on the Easy-Bake Ovens in the 1970s and 1980s.
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