This article traces the development of Aunt Jemima, one of America’s most enduring advertising icons, from her roots in Old South slave mythology and reality, through her reinterpretation in Reconstruction, minstrel shows, turn-of-the-century mass advertisements, and the Civil Rights movement, to her present incarnation as a “working grandmother.” The main focus is to demonstrate how the image of Aunt Jemima, and the slave mammy, reflected contemporary realities faced by black women in slavery and as servants in northern and southern households. Particular attention is paid to the years between 1893, when Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix was first marketed, and the Great Depression. During this period, the character of Aunt Jemima–the image and biographical detail that were sustained into the 1970s–was created in a series of print advertisements and personal appearances, even as black women were moving out of the South and then out of live-in household service.
Aunt Jemima products were sold and have continued to be sold to predominately white households by playing on popular ideas about race, class, and gender and using the plantation South as a reference point. In the ads, as in the real antebellum South, putting a black Aunt Jemima in the kitchen kept white women out of it, simultaneously offering solutions to the management of black labor and reinforcing ideas about white femininity. The continued marriage between the product and Aunt Jemima persona was so close that white housewives were constantly advised that “Aunt Jemima does all the work so you don’t have to,” and that the path to pleasing husbands was in following a recipe created by a supposedly real Louisiana slave. Thus the key to the trademark’s success was that while it could not offer real slave labor, it could offer the next-best thing, a kind of slave in a box that summoned not only Old South food but the social order among whites and blacks, men and women of the plantation South.