In 1945, Fortune magazine published a list of America’s most popular women. Timeless homemaker Betty Crocker was awarded second place and the title of “First Lady of Food,” following none other than actual First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Popular indeed, Betty Crocker’s name rings familiar with generations of cooks, who know Betty for her recipes, baking mixes, letters, and programs. What they may not realize, however, is that Betty Crocker is one of the most successful branding campaigns in the world and ageless because she never actually existed.
It all began with the promise of a free pincushion. In October 1921, the Washburn Crosby Company, purveyor of General Mills, placed an advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post, encouraging readers to cut out and assemble a puzzle for a “premium” prize, a pincushion shaped like a sack of Gold Medal Flour. The company was shocked by a response of 30,000 completed puzzles, but even more surprised by the hundreds of letters that came pouring in with questions in a tone of expectant urgency, “How long should I knead dough?” “What’s a good recipe for apple pie?” and “Why does my cake fall?”
It will help modern cooks to understand that recipes at the turn of the 20th century were not like those of today. Baking was a brutal gamble of unclear measurements (how much is a “handful”?), non-standard pan sizes, and inexact oven temperatures. Homemakers were expected to have an intrinsic “feminine sense” of how to prepare delicious meals for their families, despite these overt challenges to the science of baking. To answer the crush of letters they received, the Washburn Crosby Company’s all-male advertisers found themselves relying heavily on the domestic advice of the company’s all-female Home Service staff. Presuming that women would prefer the advice of another woman, Samuel Gale, the head of advertising, seized the opportunity to invent the perfect lady for the job, selecting the name “Betty” for its cheery sound and “Crocker” to honor William G. Crocker, a retired director of the Washburn Crosby Company. An informal competition held among female staff to discover the perfect “Betty Crocker” autograph and this was quickly followed by a new company policy ensuring that every letter regarding cooking, baking or domestic advice would bear Betty’s “Cordially yours” signature.
From the very beginning, the public had no reason to suspect Betty’s authenticity. Her correspondences were prompt, gracious and highly informative, always bearing her recognizable signature. Debuting on October 2, 1924, Betty Crocker hosted her own “Home Service'' radio show featuring “womanly talk” about cooking, homekeeping, and other “female concerns.” Voiced by home economist Blanche Ingersoll, she introduced herself as Betty Crocker and opened her first broadcast, “To those of you who are my friends through correspondences I wish to extend my cordial greetings and good wishes, and to those of you who are making the acquaintance of Betty Crocker for the first time—I bid you welcome to our circle.” And what a growing circle of listening friends she had! Her radio program proved to be a great success, such that by 1933, over 250,000 on-air students would register for her “Cooking School of the Air” program. Her letters went from 5,000 weekly, up to 4,000 or 5,000 letters daily during World War II. Her popularity was so great that her radio listeners were encouraged to enroll in the “Betty Crocker American Home Legion Program” taking a rather intense “Homemakers Creed” which among other beliefs declared, “I believe…no task is too humble that contributes to the cleanliness, the order, the health, the wellbeing of the household.” And, “I believe…a homemaker must be true to the highest ideals of love, loyalty, service, and religion.” Try reciting that to yourself the next time you don’t want to wash dishes!
As kitchen technology improved into the 20th century, introducing shiny new ovens, mixers, and refrigerators into American homes, homecooks struggled to adapt to the latest cooking methods. Betty Crocker’s name appeared on several cookbooks and she expanded from radio to television, making appearances and starring in the “Betty Crocker Star Matinee” as portrayed by actress Adelaide Hawley. Betty’s modern approach to homemaking was the result of the Washburn Crosby Company’s professional home economists, who would later be the “Betty Crocker Test Kitchens” that General Mills utilizes today. These home economists took a scientific approach to their work, striving to create fool-proof methods for cooking and baking. They campaigned for standardized pans, advocated for accurate temperature control, and, of course, promoted “quality" products like their own “kitchen-tested” Gold Medal Flour. These were the real women behind Betty Crocker’s success, who collectively provided her knowledgeable programming, recipes, and domestic advice.
Betty Crocker on TV, a tour of “Betty’s Kitchens”
Betty Crocker TV Advertisement featuring Adelaide Hawley
A new era of food products offered cooking shortcuts to even the most hopeless cooks, these mixes and cans promised tasty and affordable meals made with ease. A “Betty Crocker” dried soup mix in 1942 was followed by her cake mix in 1947, launching an array of other “kitchen helper” food products from brownie and cookie mix to frosting, Hamburger Helper and Bisquick. Suddenly, a cook of any skill level could combine eggs, water, and mix to create a guaranteed moist cake. For housewives under social pressure to appear naturally domestic, such “kitchen helper” mixes must have felt like a miracle, like buying a box of manna from heaven.
As domestic roles, consumer preferences, and the American palate continued to change over time, Betty Crocker stayed ageless and relevant by adjusting her advice, products, and recipes to suit her modern audience. The latest portrait of Betty Crocker from 1996 was painted by artist John Stuart Ingle from a computerized composite of 75 faces, the lucky winners of a “Spirit of Betty Crocker” contest. Unlike any portrait before, Betty has brown eyes, a slightly darker complexion, and casual dress. Her appearance is a literal composite of the real women who follow her advice and prepare her recipes. An estimated 350 million print and media stories discussed Betty Crocker’s new look in the year of her debut, ranging from praise for Betty’s modern multicultural appearance to criticism of General Mill’s effort at political correctness, going so far as to call Betty’s expression “a computer-generated trace.” Her changing appearance aside, Betty Crocker remains a household name in food products and cooking, helping struggling homecooks to produce dishes and desserts with ease and pleasure. Betty may not have existed, but homecooks owe tremendous gratitude to the women behind Betty Crocker, the kitchen testers and home economists, whose efforts ushered in a modern era of cooking convenience for all to enjoy.
For further reading on Betty Crocker and vintage recipes, give these titles a taste.