Aunt Jemima and the Lost Cause

Life of Aunt Jemima, 1895 booklet cover

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.

Advertisement in the December 5, 1895 Topeka State Journal, including instructions on how to procure the booklet

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.

This entry was posted in Antebellum South, Memory, Personalities, Slavery, Ties to the War and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Aunt Jemima and the Lost Cause

  1. Janet Chase says:

    Fascinating history. Thanks for sharing.

    • Enver Sulejman says:

      JEMIMA!

      Although I’m not an alcoholic, I’m entering a clinic,
      like space debris re-entering the atmosphere,
      dreaming of subterranean, secret gloryholes, fondling myself.
      I’ve got just what she needs.
      What’s the crime?

      If I’m raunchy, in-your-face,
      I’m just another kid
      in the wrong place at wrong time, falling
      in love with Aunt Jemima,
      committing adultery, fornication,
      what they call “lewd cohabitation”
      in Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona….

      To Aunt-Jemima-the-psychologist, I’d confess:
      “I tried to spend time with those who’d inspire me,
      who’d arouse my imagination,
      but it didn’t work.”

      Her not-at-all sexy reply?
      “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

      Cooing, licking her glossy, packaged lips,
      Jemima fills A&Ps, Albertsons, Smith’s Food Kings—
      she’s everyone’s breakfast,
      except mine, the 100% Pure
      All-American Over-Easy
      Pop-Tart Being.

      Enver Sulejman
      Boise, Idaho
      December 3, 1992

  2. That is one seriously tenuous link to the “Lost Cause”. How many advertisers then or now embellish stories to increase sales? Do you think this booklet was considered remotely factual by anyone? Below is the rest of the “Aunt Jemima” story which shows that Nancy Green was very successful personally and professionally.
    In the 1880’s, the story of Nancy Green’s career intersects with the story of the pancake career of St. Joseph, Missouri, newspaperman Chris Rutt. Chris Rutt’s pancake making career began in 1889 in St. Joseph, Missouri, the same city where the Old Pony Express Service had welcomed back its weary riders and stored their empty mail pouches. Chris Rutt, invented a self rising pancake mix and packaged it in plain, brown paper sacks. Soon he realized that he needed some merchandising if his product was going to be successful.
    Inspiration struck Chris when in the fall of 1889 a vaudeville team called “Baker and Farrell” came to St. Joseph to perform. Baker’s most popular song was called “Aunt Jemima,” and before long the whole town was singing it. Chris Rutt decided that “Aunt Jemima” was the perfect name for his new pancake mix, since the name conjured up visions of a plump, matronly lady cooking piles of steaming pancakes and waffles. Unfortunately, Chris and his associates couldn’t raise enough money to promote their Aunt Jemima flour, so in 1890 they sold their formula to the R.T. Davis Milling Company.
    R.T. Davis, new owner of Aunt Jemima flour, decided to search for an African American woman to hire as a living trademark for his self rising Aunt Jemima flour. After an extensive search, R.T. Davis discovered Nancy Green, 56, living in Chicago. By Colombian Exposition time in 1893, the Davis Milling Company had committed its resources to a full scale promotion of Aunt Jemima and her flour. The company demonstrated its faith in her by risking the entire future of the Aunt Jemima Self Rising Pancake Flour by promoting it at the Colombian Exposition.
    As Aunt Jemima, Nancy Green demonstrated the Aunt Jemima pancake mix and cooked & served over a million pancakes. Her warm and outgoing personality, storytelling skills, and good cooking drew so many people to her booth at the Columbia Exposition that fair officials had to assign special police to keep the crowds moving. Nancy Green’s pancake making and salesmanship skills attracted over 50,000 orders for the Davis Milling Company’s self rising pancake flour mix. Colombian Exposition officials proclaimed Nancy Green “Pancake Queen” and awarded her a medal and certificate for her showmanship.
    When the Colombian Exposition ended, Nancy had acquired the title of “Pancake Queen,” and the Davis Milling Company signed her to a lifetime contract to travel all over the United States promoting Aunt Jemima Self Rising Flour. Flour sales escalated and the image of pancakes as strictly a breakfast selection changed radically. Nancy helped changed the entire image of pancakes. Until she aggressively promoted the Aunt Jemima Self Rising Pancake Flour Mix, the flour business had been strictly seasonal, with most sales occurring in the winter. Because of her efforts, people bought and used pancake flour all year around and pancakes graduated from being a strictly breakfast menu item into standard lunch, dinner an late supper fare as well.

    • Edward S. Alexander says:

      But they could have chosen any origin story to make up for Nancy Green as Aunt Jemima. They intentionally opted for one that promoted the happy, loyal slave myth, stressed her lack of education as the reason she was successful, and threw in some laughable descriptions of the end of the war that would make even John B. Gordon blush. Since we focus on ties to the war that’s why I stopped where I did. And they made sure to paint a specific portrayal of slavery and the Civil War

      The imagery they constructed mattered. I found this article illuminating, which I’ll just link -https://blackexcellence.com/aunt-jemima-never-pancakes/

      • It seems a bit presumptuous to say that you know what motivated their advertising/promotional choices from one ad piece. As stated, the original idea came from a popular song at the time. And the focus was obviously economic (to sell pancake mix). Guess the “paint a specific portrayal of slavery and the Civil War” is your own interpretation that follows with the article you linked.

  3. Diane Mcvey says:

    My understanding is that Nancy Green benefitted financially from the company and used some of her money to improve the lives of other minorities.Hattie Mc Daniel who played Manny in Gone With The Wind became the first black to be win an Oscar for her role.Yes there were sterotypes but both of these women were admired for what they did not who they were

  4. Alton Bunn says:

    Its fascinating how people suddenly find their conscience in times like this and try to get ahead of complaints. If the current racial strife hadn’t happened they would have continued on as is. Same with NASCAR and the Confederate flag. That’s how it is for the statues; before Charlottesville they weren’t an issue for the majority of people including former democrat governor Terry McAulife who was filmed saying he didn’t think they should be moved.

    • Duff says:

      putting aside all the insanity…I would give my right arm for pancakes at Aunt Jemima’s
      Sunday morning…

  5. Douglas Pauly says:

    If the image is changed to that of, say, a white woman, would THAT be labeled as racist too, or unfair in some way? Asking for a friend..

    • Stan Killian says:

      Yeah, Douglas, think of Betty Crocker! Those dang racist, sexist, Marketing folks! How dare they use the image of “the little lady” to sell their products! Hmmm! Then what about Duncan Hines, and Chef Boyardee! Too dang much political correctness. I agree with Mr. Bunn’s comment. Everybody wants to see how quickly they can kowtow. (Whoops! Probably racially insensitive)!

  6. John Pryor says:

    Edward is apologizing again. And once again, for a perceived sin he was not involved in and has no real right or reason to apologize for. In order to do so one has to give a time well over 100 years ago power over you. Does anyone really waste their time sitting down at breakfast and heaving pancake syrup and Land O Lakes butter out the window because of racial sensitivity concerns? Are we really rewarding these trivialities with the time of day? The real tragedy here is the erasure of a black woman of accomplishment and success so a guilt ridden white boy in 2020 can feel better. The Lost Cause is dead, but apparently not dead enough.

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