Quaker Oats has just announced they will retire the Aunt Jemima brand name and imagery. The ready-made, self-rising pancake mix got its start in 1889 at the Pearl Milling Company in St. Joseph, Missouri. The initial owners soon went bankrupt and sold their company to the Randolph Truett Davis Milling Company. Davis Mills hired Nancy Green to portray “Aunt Jemima” and tour the country promoting her brand. Due to the character’s popularity, Davis Mills created a backstory through the booklet “Life of Aunt Jemima: The Most Famous Colored Woman in the World.” Below are some excerpts from the story, abounding with typical Lost Cause portrayals of slavery and the war, that the Davis Mills company created for its customers to associate with Aunt Jemima.
[note – this article was updated on June 18, 2020, with additional information on the Aunt Jemima exhibit at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia in 1895]
Near the junction of the Red River with the Mississippi, in Louisiana, on the left bank of the “Father of Waters,” stands a small log cabin, differing but little from the negro cabins so plentiful in the Southern States. It is now old and dilapidated; wind whistles through crannies between the logs, birds have built their nests under the eaves, and tropical vegetation has overgrown the once trim little garden. Passengers on the river steamers always look at this cabin with more than ordinary interest. It is one of the “sights” of that section of the country, for it was long the home and abiding place of Aunt Jemima, the celebrated cook, whose fame has since extended to the very bounds of civilization.
The cabin referred to is located on what is known as the Old Higbee Plantation, before the war one of the finest of its type in the South, famed for its beauty and the warm hospitality of its owner. Rosebank, for so it was called, was a splendid type of an old plantation home–where the latch-string was always out to the weary traveler, and the elaborate courtesy of its owner showed to the best advantage amid the refined surroundings of his happy home.
Aunt Jemima was born on this plantation. As a little pickaninny she chased the butterflies in the field, and found a new happiness in the dawn of each coming day. The fields and woods were her playground–Nature was her servant, and spread the most bounteous gifts before her–and the happy little pickaninny soon grew to be a bright young girl, untutored in the ways of worldly knowledge, but wise in the laws and limitations of Nature. Health was her guide. None knew its value better. To her, happiness meant perfect health, and perfect cooking an infallible prescription that cured all ills. In the very simplicity of her ideas lay their great value and thoroughness. It is not surprising, then, that Aunt Jemima at an early age was a noted cook, unsurpassed in the preparation of certain dishes which she prepared in a manner that showed a surprising knowledge of the properties and possibilities of their wholesome ingredients. Jemima was at this time a perfect type of a handsome and vivacious negro girl, just bordering on womanhood; and her mistress, Mrs. Higbee, speedily discovered that she was a household jewel, and prized her for her kindness and nobility of character, as well as for her cooking.
Not satisfied with the mere ability to cook, Aunt Jemima, with a perspicacity seldom met with in her race, carefully analyzed the different properties of the cereal and the other foods she prepared; and it is a well-known fact that not one of her many recipes has ever been improved upon.
The illustration is a correct likeness of Aunt Jemima at the Governor’s Mansion, as Col. Higbee’s dwelling was known during the period before the war, and it was here she cooked for many of the most famous people of this continent and Europe. The illustration shows the famous cook bringing in a plate of Aunt Jemima’s pancakes, which were somewhat like the griddle cakes so common in the South, though the ingredients in her cakes were so combined as to make them digestible; and in some manner Aunt Jemima produced a flavor to her pancakes that no other person could imitate. When the Colonel went to the field and his family moved to New Orleans, Aunt Jemima returned to her home in the plantation cabin whence they had taken her.
Among the notable incidents in her experience might be named the meals served by Aunt Jemima to the leaders of the Confederacy near the close of the war, when those gallant men, harassed and pursued, surrounded on all sides by the Union troops, deprived of almost the necessaries of life, found in Aunt Jemima–the ex-slave–a friend indeed. Many were the frugal meals served at her little cabin; for the gunboats had long ago destroyed the planter’s mansion.
The illustration on page 9 is a truthful representation of Aunt Jemima serving meals to some of the prominent leaders of the Confederacy. To be sure there was nothing very elaborate about those meals; but Aunt Jemima’s cooking, always liked, tasted like home cooking to the tired and weary generals, to whom her pancakes alone made up for the loss of luxuries.
I found the full version of this booklet through the Harvard College online archives – here.
Pearl Milling based Aunt Jemima off a blackface “mammy” character portrayed in a traveling minstrel show. The Davis Milling version of Aunt Jemima debuted to a worldwide audience at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Two years later Davis Milling sent Nancy Green to the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. The Philadelphia Times reported on November 8, 1895:
There is an exhibit here that attracts a great deal of attention, and most deservedly so. It is rather different from the ordinary fair exhibits, unique and very interesting. It is “Aunt Jemima,” a dear old Southern “mammy,” of ante-bellum days, of whom too much cannot be said, and for whom too much cannot be done. Years before the war the favorite slave of a wealthy Mississippian died, leaving her master and mistress a wee black babe. It was only a few days old and delicate, and they therefore gave the baby a lot of care. The mistress loved the mother, good faithful creature that she had always been, and for her sake determined to love and raise at any cost the little one. With the best of care, the black baby grew and grew, like Mr. Finnie’s turnip, and ere they realized the fact, was a hale, hearty child, very much spoiled, but petted and lvoed.
“Little Jem,” as she was then called, grew with the same astonishing rapidity, and by the beginning of the war little Jem was a grown woman and was called Aunt Jemima. She was a round, happy-faced woman, with a heart as big as her body. Aunt Jemima was as great a favorite with he white folks as her mother had been, and was humored more. She bossed all the “house niggers” and cooks; in fact, bossed every black person that “comed in de white folks’ yard.” And never an unnecessary bit of bad news reached “marster’s” ear, if Aunt Jemima heard it first, and this she was almost sure to do.
Aunt Jemima was priceless then, but her true worth was not known until the war came on. That was the test, and she stood it and proved herself the same faithful slave she had always been. One by one the negroes ran away to hasten their freedom. Aunt Jemima stood at her post, with her shoulder to the wheel and with thoughts of and only for master and mistress, determined to do or die. When her master went to the war she stood by his heartbroken wife, to work for, cheer and aid in every way, and this she did well and faithfully. Aunt Jemima became well-known to the boys on both sides, and so long as there was anything left in the once well-filled larder never a soldier, no matter what color his uniform, was ever permitted to leave the doorway hungry.
She was permitted to travel through the lines at her own will, for it was known a good meal, smoking hot and savory, would repay the hungry sentinel.
Aunt Jemima had many queer experiences during the war, and right interesting they are too. One incident that everyone loves to hear her relate in her own quaint way was the freeing of her master while he was a prisoner of the Yankee boys. It was on a cold, dark, rainy night. The soldiers had just returned from a reconnoisance, and were wet and chilled. They hurried into camp for a sip of brandy. Aunt Jemima stood at the camp door, but that was enough. Upon looking in her blood left her body, her lips quivered and her hands trembled, not with fear for her position, but for the position of her beloved master, held a prisoner. Aunt Jemima promised the Union men a supper and hastily retreated.
In due time Aunt Jemima’s promise was kept, and the supper finished with the best of wines. She knew mixed drinks were dangerous, and so when the boys in camp awakened their rebel prisoner was missing. The facts in the case were never known to any of them either. It was not for an instant suspected that Aunt Jemima had any hand in it. And as one good turn deserves another, the master profited by the example of this humble though noble creature and set his slave free. Aunt Jemima smiled but shook her hand and said she would never [ed.-several words missing from paper] the ending of the war and the return of her master. And by the side of her mistress, night and day, she would stay, and she kept her word. Ere the close of the war her master was wounded, and in order for this faithful slave to reach the dilapidated building used then as a Confederate hospital, she was compelled to pass through the lines, and this she managed with the success that crowned all of her undertakings. Not a word did she tell her mistress, but went first to see whether there was danger, and finding her master fatally wounded, she returned and advised her mistress to say nothing, but follow her.
Aunt Jemima procured the family clothes basket, a huge affair, and carelessly dropped a number of pieces in it. Next her mistress was ordered to get in and double up, making herself as small as possible. This done, clothes were thrown in, crammed and jammed all over and all around the slender little woman preparing to go through the enemy’s lines to see her wounded husband. The basket once upon Aunt Jemima’s level head, she placed her hands akimbo and strutted along, singing at the top of her voice. Without pausing, she told the sentinel she was only going a half-mile farther “ter carry dem clean clothes,” and was allowed to pass without further questioning. She left her mistress at her husband’s bedside and hastened back to the plantation house. As often as she dared she returned to learn of her master’s condition, and the last time she found him gone. He had left war for peace. She smuggled her heartbroken mistress back home and lived with her and cared for her as she had promised she would, until her death occurred two years later.