More Route 66 food history:  the real Aunt Jemima

Last time, we introduced the game of Six Degrees of Daniel Burnham (eat your heart out, Kevin Bacon!) while discussing Chicago cuisine.  It’s time for Round 2, this time with someone who appeared at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition and was a big hit:  the original Aunt Jemima, aka Nancy Green.

Portrait of Nancy Green as Aunt Jemima by A. B. Frost

Portrait of Nancy Green by A. B. Frost  (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Although born into slavery on a plantation in 1834 in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, Green had become a young nurse by the end of the Civil War.  After 1865, she moved up to Chicago to work as a cook and maid for the prosperous Walker family (their children grew up to be Judge Charles M. Walker and Dr. Samuel Walker, the latter a wealthy physician who lived on the city’s North Side).  It seems Ms. Green was known for her warm personality as much as for her cooking.  She didn’t become the first woman to portray Aunt Jemima until 1890, at which time Chicagoans were busily preparing for the upcoming world’s fair.  But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Cut to St. Joseph, Missouri, 1888 (i.e., suburban St. Louis).  Two friends, Charles G. Underwood and Christian L. Rutt, who was then editor of the St. Joseph Gazette, bought a flour mill that they dubbed the Pearl Milling Company.  Because there was a flour glut at the time, they sold their excess flour in white paper sacks as a ready-made, self-rising pancake mix.  Rutt was the one who came up with the recipe, a surviving handwritten copy of which, dated November 1, 1889, still exists at the Patee House Museum (a former luxury hotel in St. Joseph listed on the National Register of Historic Places that is now also a National Historic Landmark).  It’s clear the recipe is his, despite other claims.

aunt_jemima_ready-mix_boxOriginally saddled with a forgettable brand name, the prepared mix was rechristened the following year as Aunt Jemima Ready-Mix, supposedly after either a character in a popular song of the era or a character in an equally popular minstrel show of the day.  Green was referred to the two men as someone who could be a brand symbol for the product.  However, Rutt and Underwood weren’t able to make the mill profitable, and in 1890 they sold the recipe and the trademarked image of Aunt Jemima to the R.T. Davis Milling Company of St. Joseph.

That same year, Davis Milling hired Nancy Green to promote the product (some sources claim she was actually hired earlier that year by Rutt and Underwood and kept on by Davis Milling, but that is unclear).  In any case, Green was the first woman to portray Aunt Jemima – a job she had even before the Columbian Exposition, which didn’t open for another three years.

Nancy Green as Aunt Jemima in a color advertisement

Nancy Green as Aunt Jemima in a color advertisement

The 1893 world’s fair, however, was where Green really made the product famous.  That was where the brand introduced its first marketing slogan, “I’s in town, honey,” which would be repeated endlessly in subsequent ad campaigns.  Green was posed next to what was reputedly “the world’s largest flour barrel,” dressed as the classic Southern mammy stereotype in an apron and bandanna headscarf, and touted the product at a cooking display where she demonstrated the mix and served the pancakes.  The fact that she was friendly and a great storyteller in addition to being a marvelous cook helped her immensely; according to news reports, special policemen had to be hired to keep the crowd at her booth moving along because she was so popular with attendees.  By the fair’s conclusion, Green had obtained more than 50,000 orders for the pancake mix.  In fact, she was so successful that she was named the “Pancake Queen,” and fair officials awarded her a medal and a certificate for her showmanship.  Consequently, after the fair ended, Davis Milling gave her a lifetime contract.  She became the face of the brand to the nation and the advertising world’s first living trademark.

An Aunt Jemima promotional pin, date unknown

An Aunt Jemima promotional pin

Green traveled on promotional tours all over the country.  Because of her marketing efforts and the company’s advertising, pancakes were no longer considered to be exclusively a breakfast dish.  At some point, she was reputed to have suggested either to Rutt or to Davis Milling the addition of powdered milk to Rutt’s original recipe, but this remains unconfirmed; Quaker Oats Co., the current owner of the brand, denies this claim and there is no remaining evidence to the contrary (but that may only mean that any paperwork Davis Milling had that would back up Green’s supposed contribution was lost prior to the company’s sale to Quaker Oats in 1926).  In 1914, Davis Milling finally renamed itself the Aunt Jemima Mills Company.

Green’s professional success gave her a good income and standing within the black community, which allowed her to become an advocate for anti-poverty programs and an early activist for civil rights.  She was one of the organizers of the Olivet Baptist Church congregation, still located at 3101 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood and at one point the largest black church congregation in the nation.  At the time, the congregation had more than 10,000 members; by the 1940s, the membership was about 20,000.  Green also became one of the first African-American missionary workers.  Given this, it is bitterly ironic that progressive African American women later saw the image of Aunt Jemima – an image that Green helped to create – as the equivalent of a female “Uncle Tom” and a setback in race relations.  Green never saw herself that way.

After the fair, Green lived at 4543 S. Indiana Ave., near the border between the Grand Boulevard neighborhood and Kenwood, in a 135-year old six-flat apartment building that still stands today.  News reports said that she died August 30, 1923 at age 89 after being struck by a car; she had been walking near 46th Street and King Drive, which was then known as Grand Boulevard.  The car hit her when it jumped the curb onto the sidewalk.  The driver of the car, a physician, had tried to avoid colliding with a laundry truck but collided with Green instead.  Her death notice ran in the Chicago Daily Tribune the following day as well as in black-owned publications later on.  However, over the years, people forgot where Green was buried, and not even her page on the cemetery website Find-A-Grave provides a location.

NE section of Oak Woods Cemetery in which Nancy Green is buried  (photo courtesy of Google street view, Aug-2007)

NE section of Oak Woods Cemetery in which Nancy Green is buried in an unmarked grave; it is one of the oldest parts of the cemetery.  (Photo courtesy of Google street view, August 2007)

In fact, her remains lie at Oak Woods Cemetery, near 67th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side.  She is buried in an unmarked grave in Section R3, Lot 291, within a parcel that is a spur off the square-shaped cemetery’s northeast quadrant.  Section R3 is one of the oldest and least impressive segments of the 183-acre burial ground; the area includes few headstones, and many graves there have no markers at all.  It is also the least scenic section; sections that were opened or added later were much more elaborately landscaped.

In the northeast corner of Oak Woods, there are no decorative crypts, no obelisks, no historic monuments or mounds, and no famous figures other than Nancy Green.  Mayors, mafiosi, and cultural icons such as Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens; physicist Enrico Fermi, J. Young Scammon; an early city father and friend of Chicago’s first mayor, William B. Ogden; former White Sox owner Bill Veeck, Jr.; first baseball commissioner and federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis; Chicago Cubs manager and first baseman Cap Anson; journalist and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett; gospel music stars Thomas A. Dorsey and Albertina Walker; bluesmen Junior Wells and Little Brother Montgomery; and early churchman Bishop Louis Henry Ford all lie elsewhere at Oak Woods, beneath shade trees or closer to the two lagoons.  Not Nancy Green, who was most likely buried well before the more scenic areas of the graveyard were developed.  Yet Oak Woods is one of the three most prestigious burial grounds in Chicago, the other two being Graceland Cemetery north of the Wrigleyville neighborhood and Rosehill Cemetery in the far-north Edgewater neighborhood near the border with Rogers Park.

Aunt Jemima logo - modernQuaker Oats bought the Aunt Jemima brand, trademark and company in 1926, three years after Green’s death and one year before Route 66 opened for business in November 1927.  By then, Aunt Jemima was well established as a national brand.  It has remained so to this day.  Quaker Oats is a subsidiary of the food and beverage conglomerate PepsiCo.  The company has periodically updated the Aunt Jemima logo to reflect the times; it abandoned the “mammy” image almost half a century ago.

The Bronzeville Historical Society is trying to raise funds for a headstone for Green’s grave, according to its president, Sherrie Williams.  Given the section the grave is in now, the marker will have to be a flat stone.  To erect a larger monument would not only be more expensive because of the larger stonework:  it would require exhumation and relocation of the coffin to another section of the cemetery that allows taller monuments.  Probably not happening, unless the fundraiser is wildly successful (perhaps someone should suggest crowdfunding?).  You can contact the society here on its blog site.

So:  every time you reach for that pancake batter, give a thought to Nancy Green, who started the whole ball rolling at the Columbian Exhibition.  Without her, Aunt Jemima might never have become a household word (or two).

Until next time,




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