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Betty Crocker: A Brief Biography

Long have our supermarket shelves borne products with the name Betty Crocker.  This name has long since lodged in our heads an essential part of americana.  It seems to evoke the past.  It seems to always have evoked the past, a past when life was simpler and Mother and Grandmother cooked at home, using time tested recipes and only the purest ingredients.  We can’t go back to that simpler, wholesome past, but we can give ourselves a Proustian shot of nostalgia by tasting the past we remember, or the past we only wish we could remember, but know must be so good.  That is the Betty Crocker brand.  You might have seen drawings of her, but have you ever actually seen the legend herself?  Here’s an image of Miss Crocker from a 1953 television ad:

“Betty Crocker” in a 1953 TV commercial for Betty Crocker™ Marble Cake Mix.

The full "Betty Crocker" TV commercial.

Okay, that’s actually actress Adelaide Hawley, who played Betty Crocker in a number of commercials for the brand from 1949 to 1964.  Betty Crocker was born in 1921, so this representation looks to be about the right age, but it isn’t actually her.  So who is she, really?

I hope I’m not shattering any illusions here, but the truth is, Betty Crocker is not a real person.  She never was.  She was the invention of Marjorie Husted, a home economist and businesswoman who worked with advertising man Bruce Barton to develop the Betty Crocker character for General Mills.  Betty Crocker was never more than an image, an advertising icon, but she was popular from early on.  Her name appeared on General Mills’ cake, biscuit and bread mixes.  A woman’s name made sense, since the idea was to evoke a bright, cheerful, and savvy homemaker to associate with the products.

It wasn’t long before Betty Crocker started talking.  Her voice was characterized by Agnes White, who played Betty Crocker, uncredited, for the full run of a radio program called Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air.  It first aired on one radio station in Minneapolis, where General Mills was based, but the show was a hit, so it was soon picked up by the NBC radio network.  It ran from 1924 until 1953, with Agnes White the sole actress in the role for the entire 29-year run.  There were cookbooks with Betty Crocker’s name on them, said to have been penned by the mythic woman, filled with recipes that happen to use General Mills products.

We didn’t get a look at Betty Crocker until 1936, when a portrait of her was commissioned.  Her picture appeared on packages of her products.  She was tastefully dressed and coiffed (but not at all dowdy) in the style of the day.  Of course, styles change, and Betty did, too:

Betty kept up with the times: never flashy, never trashy, always a brunette in red.

The original 1936 portrait of Betty was painted by accomplished illustrator Neysa McMein, who said she blended the features of several women into one “motherly image”, as General Mills put it.  The next six Betty Crocker portraits sprang from the imaginations of particular artists.  The 1955 portrait was chosen from the submissions of six different artists who were invited to come up with a new image.  The winning artist was Hilda Taylor.  One of the also-rans was, notably, Norman Rockwell.  The 1996 Betty Crocker portrait, when her ever-changing eye color changed back to their original brown, recalls the original portrait’s strategy of combining features of several women, but instead of just using three, Betty’s most recent portrait is a combination of 75 different “women from various backgrounds”, claims General Mills.

Though a fictional advertising icon, Betty Crocker was a lodestone in many people’s lives.  Women wrote to Betty over the years, seeking advice on cooking, of course, but on other areas of their lives.  Men didn’t write her for advice so much for a different agenda.  According to General Mills, Betty averaged about four marriage proposals a week.  If they only knew.  Betty Crocker’s sexual orientation has never been addressed by General Mills.  The company did face a boycott from conservative customers in 2012 because of its strong stance in favor of marriage equality legislation in Minnesota.  Did this mean that the company started to get proposals from female customers, too?  General Mills has remained silent on that.

But they didn’t know, and General Mills didn’t exactly encourage consumers to figure it out.  Why bother?  Betty was a pleasant fiction.  Besides the aforementioned television commercials, a 1945 educational film distributed to home economics classes around the United States referred to the research into cake making done by “Betty Crocker and her staff”.  The film was little more than a 22-minute commercial for Betty Crocker™ brand cake mixes.  It featured an all-female team testing and inspecting batters and cakes, overseen by a woman in a red dress.  That same year, Betty Crocker was named by Fortune magazine as the second-most popular woman in America, right after Eleanor Roosevelt.  Fortune “outed” Betty in its article, letting America know that she’s not a real person, harshly denouncing her as a “fake” and a “fraud”.

Home economics educational film “400 Years in 4 Minutes” ©1945 General Mills

More likely you know the famous wooden spoon logo that figures prominently on Betty Crocker products.  Maybe modern consumers don’t need to feel that a kind woman with strong maternal instincts is responsible for tonight’s powdered biscuit mix.  Either we’re too jaded toward the images that ad agencies concoct, or we simply don’t care whether the face on the box is a real person or not.  Either way, Betty Crocker represents a bygone era when we still needed to somehow connect home cooking with a face and a name, and it couldn’t be true, wholesome home cooking without somebody’s mother’s face on the label.

In 1981, Berkeley Breathed imagined Betty Crocker as a real person.  In his daily comic strip, Bloom County, Milo Bloom goes on a quest to find America, which to him means finding Betty Crocker herself.  Breathed’s image of Betty was a little different from the official commercial portraits, but it did capture a shift in the winds of the American reverence for the advertising icon, and perhaps a shift in America’s own picture of itself?  Perhaps.  All I can say for sure is that it’s always risky to meet your heroes.

Bloom County, October 8, 1981

Bloom County, October 9, 1981

Bloom County, October 10, 1981
Note: True or Better has not endorsed Betty Crocker or any of General Mills’ products.  They are not paying me.  I am not above taking a little scratch from them, so if they’re open to it, I’ll tell them where to send the checks.  Otherwise… well, you know, Sara Lee isn’t a real person, either.  Or Duncan Hines.  (No, wait… Duncan Hines is a real person.)  I’ll take anyone’s money; I have no shame, no shame, I tellya…


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