Born into slavery on November 17, 1834, Nancy Green began life on a plantation in Montgomery County, Kentucky. During her childhood years while working as a laundress, she probably never dreamed she would grow up to be an American success story. At the age of 54, Nancy become America’s first living trademark and black corporate spokesperson when she was selected as the face of Aunt Jemima.
In 1888, Chris Rutt, editor of the St. Joseph Gazette, along with businessman Charles Underwood, purchased the Pearl Milling Company. At that time, they faced a glutted flour market, so they came up with the idea of developing a packaged pancake mix as a unique outlet for marketing their flour. At first, the mix was sold in white paper sacks with a trade name. In an effort to enhance their promotion efforts, the two men realized they would need an image on their packaging that would help it to stand out.
While attending a vaudeville show during the fall of 1889, Rutt’s marketing solution began to come together. At the show, two performers named Baker & Farrell wore blackface while singing a catchy tune entitled, “Old Aunt Jemima”. The song was written by Billy Kersands in 1875. The performer was dressed in a bandanna headband and an apron. Looking at the image before him, Rutt chose the name “Aunt Jemima” for his product. (The name "Jemima" is biblical in origin and comes from Yəmīmā, the first of Job's daughters.)
By 1890, Rutt and Underwood had gone belly-up financially and were forced to sell the formula for their pancake mix. Randolph Truett Davis Milling Company, based in St. Joseph, Missouri, purchased the recipe. Davis now began to search for a black woman to become the product’s trademark. His search ended in Chicago when Davis met 56-year old Nancy Green.
Prior to meeting Davis, Nancy was a very popular cook. He hired her to promote his pancake mix at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. As Aunt Jemima, Nancy made history and breakfast by serving more than one million pancakes during the exposition’s timeframe. In the display with Nancy was “the world’s largest flour barrel”.
As a result of Green’s friendly personality and great storytelling skills, Americans fell in love with her. Coupled with her marketing slogan, “I’s in town, Honey,” Nancy was soon a big hit. Before long, her image was seen in advertisements and on billboards around the world. Countless numbers of people were drawn to her booth to such a degree; the exposition was forced to place special policemen nearby to keep the crowds moving.
By the end of the exposition, Davis Milling Company received more than 50,000 orders from buyers for the new Aunt Jemima pancake mix. Nancy was presented a certificate and medal by the exposition’s officials for her showmanship. As the ideal "Aunt Jemima," she quickly became a living trademark.
Also at this exposition was a woman by the name of Anna Julia Cooper. Ms. Cooper utilized the opportunity made available by the exposition to state the fact young black women were being exploited by white men. She predicted Aunt Jemima’s appeal, along with the ideal southern domestic, would serve to enhance fascination in the north regarding southern traditions and later have them incorporated into America’s “unwritten history.” Now-emancipated black women considered the image of Aunt Jemima to be a setback in race relations.
Despite this negativity, Nancy was proclaimed the “Pancake Queen” and offered a lifetime contract to act as Davis’s spokesperson at expositions throughout the United States. She would continue in the role of Aunt Jemima for the next 30 years.
In 1914, the name of the company was changed from Davis Milling to Aunt Jemima Mills. The company’s flour sales skyrocketed and a caricature of Nancy costumed as a black mammy soon graced the front of the Aunt Jemima boxes.
Over time, the formula for the pancake mix has been modified several times, and in like manner, so has the logo. The original illustration remained on the boxes until 1917 when it was redrawn. Aunt Jemima was now shown as a heavy-set black housekeeper with a large smile and wearing a bandanna on her head. In 1968, the image was updated and later one more remake occurred in 1989. Aunt Jemima was now put on a diet and given a perm. The new logo showed a thinner woman, no longer wearing a bandanna, with short, curly hair and wearing a pair of pearl earrings. This latest illustration offered more of a resemblance to the modern homemaker and helped remove racial connotations.
At the time Aunt Jemima’s mix first hit the market, pancakes were only consumed for breakfast. The arrival of the mix on store shelves changed consumer’s way of thinking and suddenly pancakes began showing up during lunch and dinner as well. They also became a method of fund raising. In Rockford, Illinois, the local Kiwanias organization began to serve pancakes for a fund raiser to build the city’s Boys Club.
Nancy Green’s tenure as Aunt Jemima ended in Chicago when she died after being struck by an automobile while crossing the street on September 23, 1923. With the financial freedom her successful career provided her, Nancy had spent the latter part of her life striving to fight poverty in the black community.
The painting of Nancy Green responsible for the image of Aunt Jemima was created by artist A. B. Frost. He is known as one of the great illustrators of the Golden Age of American Illustration. It was later sold at MastroNet for $9,030.