Nancy Green, Talented Entrepreneur, Transitional Symbol
At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a smiling African American woman stood in front of the world’s largest flour barrel making pancakes in front of a sign identifying her as “Aunt Jemima.” The flour barrel behind her measured 12 feet across at the ends, 24 feet long and 16 feet in diameter. Inside the barrel displays advertised the virtues of pancakes and customers happily ate pancakes, testifying to their virtues. More customers stood outside talking to Aunt Jemima and praising her pancakes. Aunt Jemima, or Nancy Green, had established a successful corporate career despite her humble beginnings.
Nancy Green’s pancakes are just as popular in the 21st century, but often her name is forgotten as a woman who was born into slavery and its devastation, but turned a localized flour business into a thriving national enterprise and racial stereotypes into symbols of friendliness, hospitality, and prosperity. She was a storyteller, cook, and one of the first African American women hired as a corporate representative. Some people still criticize her and label her as the stereotypical “black Mammy,” while overlooking her individual courage, determination, and talent.
Along with slavery, Nancy Green inherited a legacy of stereotypes about African Americans that continued over a century after the Civil War. Billy Kersands, himself an African American comedian, songwriter and minstrel show performer, inspired the Aunt Jemima character with his vaudeville song “Old Aunt Jemima” which he wrote in 1875. His song earned Aunt Jemima popularity in late 19th century minstrel shows and as a symbol in 20th century corporations. The song helped create the Aunt Jemima pancakes brand and several film, television and radio characters called “Aunt Jemima,” but Nancy Green and her dynamic personality were equally important factors in the success of Aunt Jemima character.
Nancy Green and Aunt Jemima
Nancy Green was born into slavery in Montgomery County, Kentucky, on November 17, 1834. Part of her experience included cooking for the family of a judge and serving as a nurse for his two sons. Eventually she moved to Chicago where through the years she perfected her cooking talents.
In the 1880s, 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 Columbian 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 Columbian Exposition.
As Aunt Jemima, Nancy Green demonstrated the Aunt Jemima pancake mix and cooked and 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 policemen 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. Columbian Exposition officials proclaimed Nancy Green “Pancake Queen” and awarded her a medal and certificate for her showmanship.
Nancy Green “Pancake Queen”
When the Columbian 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.
Nancy Green transformed Aunt Jemima from a strictly racist, commercial cipher into a symbol of friendliness and hospitality, making thousands of personal appearances for Aunt Jemima Self Rising Pancake Flour and the Davis Milling Company. Several organizations, including the Boys Club at Rockford, Illinois, exist because Nancy Green helped raise funds to support them every year. Nancy Green raised over three million dollars for charities without any personal return for her or her company. In 1914, the Davis Milling Company changed its name to Aunt Jemima Mills Company and Nancy Green continued to travel and promote Aunt Jemima Self Raising Pancake Flour.
Then on September 23, 1923, Nancy Green, now beloved all over the country as Aunt Jemima, died in an automobile accident in Chicago at age 89. In 1925 two years after her death, the Quaker Oats Company bought out Aunt Jemima Mills, but Nancy Green's interpretation and performance of Aunt Jemima and her trademark pancakes lived on- a legacy that could never have thrived without her love of cooking, pancakes, and people of all colors and classes.
Roberts, Diane. The Myth of Aunt Jemima: White Women Representing Black Women. Routledge, 1994.
Foxworth, Marilyn Kern. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. (Contributions in Afro-American and African Studies. Praeger, 1994.
Manning, Maurice M. Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima. (The American South Series). University of Virginia Press, 1998.