Betty Crocker, the First Lady of Food
Betty Crocker logo. Source: (wikimedia.org)
Today, the name Betty Crocker is most recognizable as a brand of boxed cake and brownie mix, but that has not always been the case. Hailed as the “Dear Abby” of cooking, Betty Crocker was originally the go-to source for the various kitchen-related questions and problems which plagued the women of the early to mid-nineteenth century. What those women didn’t know was that Betty Crocker was not a real person.
Betty Crocker was born in 1921, the result of an ad campaign for Gold Medal Flour, a product of the Washburn Crosby Company, a flour-milling company that started in the late 1800s and would go on to become General Mills. The ad, which was placed in the Saturday Evening Post, featured a jigsaw puzzle of a milling scene and offered a pincushion shaped like a sack of Gold Medal flour to anyone who completed the puzzle and mailed it in. Thousands of puzzles were sent in, many of which included letters asking questions about baking.
In charge of responding to these letters was the all-male advertising department, headed by Samuel Gale. The men of that department would consult the women of the Gold Medal Home Service staff before responding to the letters. However, Gale felt that since most of the letters were from women, those women would probably prefer to have their questions answered by another woman. So, they decided to create a fictitious female persona to sign the response letters.
The last name, Crocker was chosen in honor of William G. Crocker, the recently retired director of the Washburn Crosby Company. The first name Betty was chosen simply because it sounded friendly. The next step was to create the signature. Gale invited all the female employees of the company to submit signatures. They chose the most distinctive one, submitted by a secretary named Florence Lindeberg, and that signature is still used by the brand today.
In 1924, Betty Crocker became more than just a signature when the Washburn Crosby Company premiered a cooking radio show, called The Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air. Marjorie Child Husted, both the writer and host of the show, became the first voice of Betty Crocker. The show first aired on Minneapolis radio station, which the Washburn Crosby Company had saved from bankruptcy and renamed WCCO, but eventually aired nationwide with each station having its own Betty Crocker voice. In 1927, the radio program became part of the newly founded NBC network. But Betty Crocker didn’t stop with the radio.
In 1951, Adelaide Hawley became the first of many actresses to portray the fictitious cooking expert on television. However, she was not the first face of Betty Crocker, who had been appearing in ad campaigns since the 1920s. The first official portrait was created by Neysa McMein in 1936 and was a composite of the facial features of the female staff of the Washburn Crosby Company’s Home Service Department, who was the original source of the cooking advice the icon was doling out. The image used for the ad campaign has been updated seven times since 1955, once to resemble Jackie Kennedy.
Betty Crocker’s role in the company has extended far beyond its original purpose. The first product to display her name was a soup mix that hit the shelves in 1941. By 1945, she was the second most well-known woman in America, surpassed only by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and earning herself the nickname “First Lady of Food.” Also, around that time, she was broadcast on a radio program called “Our Nation’s Rations,” aimed at making recipes with rationed foods. Then, in 1954, the Betty Crocker Search for the All-American Homemaker of Tomorrow was launched, providing college scholarships to high-school seniors who exhibited home-making skills. The scholarship program continued until 1977.
Today, in addition to being the name on the big red spoon splashed across packages of baking mixes and frostings, Betty Crocker continues to dispense cooking tips via the website. However, the Betty Crocker Cookbook, first published in 1950, and Betty Crocker’s monthly recipe magazine, published since the 1980s, can still be found in grocery stores across the country.