In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating the most iconic female figures on our supermarket shelves—both real and fictional—who have shaped the way we cook and eat over the last century.
Many generations of Americans have grown up with the flavors of one woman’s pancake mixes and syrups filling their kitchens on Saturday mornings, and that woman is, of course, Aunt Jemima.
And although Aunt Jemima is a fictitious character, constructed to be the warm and welcoming creator of a simple and satisfying pancake mix, a number of real and talented women acted as the face and voice of the brand over the course of its history.
The Aunt Jemima brand began in 1889 as the world’s first ready-mix on the market. The popular Aunt Jemima pancake syrup didn’t show up on supermarket shelves until 1966, followed later by frozen products and other iterations of the pancake mix and syrup.
The inspiration for the name “Aunt Jemima” was a popular 1875 Vaudeville song by singer Billy Kersands called “Old Aunt Jemima,” inspired by the Aunt Jemima character that was prominent in minstrel shows at the time.
The very first woman to ever play the character on the public stage was Nancy Green, who was hired to be the brand’s spokesperson in 1890. Green was born into slavery in Montgomery County, Kentucky in 1834, and was discovered by the mix’s creators in 1889 while living in Chicago.
FEATURED RECIPE: For a new way to use your Aunt Jemima pancake mix, give this Banana Upside-Down Pancake Cake a try.
Green made her first public appearance as the character at the 1893 Worlds’ Columbian Exposition, where the massive crowds to meet the “real” Aunt Jemima got so out of control that police were brought in to control the flow of people. At the expo, Green served thousands of pancakes, charmed the crowd with her warmth, and caused a surge in purchase orders for the Aunt Jemima pancake mix, including 50,000 orders during the event alone.
After experiencing such a huge boom in popularity thanks to their captivating spokesperson, the company offered Green a lifetime contract to portray Aunt Jemima for the rest of her days. Tragically, Nancy Green died in a car accident in 1923, and following her death the company experienced huge financial struggles, soon selling the Aunt Jemima brand to Quaker Oats.
Following Green’s passing, a number of new women stepped in as the face and voice of Aunt Jemima, providing portraits for the packaging and depicting the character in public. This included Edith Wilson, an actress and blues singer who starred in the first Aunt Jemima television commercials; Ethel Ernestine Harper, a teacher and actress; and Rosie Hall, an advertising employee for Quaker Oats.
The final woman to ever portray Aunt Jemima in public was Ann Short Harrington, who not only traveled the country portraying the character and played her on T.V. from 1933-1952, but was also reportedly a complete pancake whiz who helped to shape the modern Aunt Jemima recipes.
In 2014, the relatives of Harrington sued Quaker Oats for $2 billion, claiming that their family, as well as the family of Nancy Green, should receive a portion of every product sold for bearing the likeness of their family member. The family also claims that Harrington developed 64 original formula recipes used for Quaker Oats’ mixes without receiving proper credit or compensation.
Though the Aunt Jemima figure has long been considered a warm emblem of home cooking by some, the brand and the character have also experienced significant backlash for being traced back to mistrel-era Southern racism, and for reflecting insensitivity towards this history.
And while the character of Aunt Jemima herself has been debated over the years, the impact that the women who played her made on the food and advertising worlds is undeniable. Although Aunt Jemima wasn’t a real person, those who stepped into her shoes, helped to present her to the world, and worked to improve upon her recipes will go down in history.