Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Women of Wednesday: Let’s Hear it For the (Pitch) Ladies

When you think of women who have been featured in advertisements, you might think of the “Where’s the Beef?” lady or the one who had “…fallen and can’t get up.” But other women successfully have lent their talents to product promotion. Their personalities not only helped to make particular products household names, we often enjoyed their commercial antics.

Josephine the Plumber, (for Comet cleanser) was one, as portrayed by popular comedic actress and former child star Jane Withers. She appeared on the heels of the Women’s movement, (pun intended) wearing a jaunty plumber’s cap, overalls, and just the right amount of makeup:

Today we have Flo the perky Progressive Insurance clerk portrayed by actress/comedian Stephanie Courtney. Flo is so well-liked she has over 3 million Facebook fans:!/flotheprogressivegirl

One of the first of the pitch ladies was Nancy Green, an African American woman who had been born into slavery in 1834.

In the late 1800s, the R.T Davis Milling Company bought a pancake recipe from the Pearl Milling Company. R.T. Davis wanted a warm, friendly-looking woman to represent his new product at the World Columbian Exposition to be held in Chicago in 1893.

Fifty-nine-year-old Nancy Green was just that person. At that time she was living in Chicago. And she was a first-rate cook, too. Nancy was hired to become the face of the new pancake recipe that was called “Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Mix.” R.T. Davis thought people would be more interested in buying his product if they thought there was a real Aunt Jemima behind the recipe.

Nancy’s debut as the real-life face of Davis’ pancake mix took place at the Columbian Exposition. (That world’s fair would launch the careers of many notable women but those are stories for another Wednesday).

Nancy was a hit! People loved her warmth and charm and also loved “her” pancakes. Thousands came through to meet “Aunt Jemima” and try her new recipe. It was said that police had to be hired to keep the crowds moving through her exhibit.

Over the years, many people felt the Aunt Jemima character was a poor choice because it could also be construed as a glorification of slavery. The term, an “Aunt Jemima” was often used as the female version of the “Uncle Tom” –a black person who remains submissive to any white authority figure. Others believed that Aunt Jemima represented anyone’s friendly, loving relative. In spite of the disagreement, the icon—now modernized—is still in use over 100 years after it was originated.

Nancy Green portrayed Aunt Jemima for over 30 years. As time went on, several other women took over the role of the woman that, like her pancakes, was warm and comforting. But Nancy was the first and today we recall the lady that made one product a success.


Diane Mayr said...

It would be interesting to hear what Nancy herself thought of the Aunt Jemima portrayal. Or, what other black women thought.

I've read that one in four Americans visited the Columbian Exposition. I haven't read if African Americans were allowed to visit.

So much to research!

Diane Mayr said...

I just looked it up and African Americans were denied admission! As a matter of fact, notable woman, Ida B. Wells, protested the policy! Click here for the story.

Mur said...

Wow! Very interesting. As I said in my post, the Columbian Exhibition appears as part of the many notable women's biographies either as a means of displaying their talents or as inspiration for future achievements. Gotta wonder how many more achievements would have been accomplished if another large percentage of American women had been allowed in.

I'm Jet . . . said...

Fascinating post and equally fascinating comments and links.

Perhaps someone should add the Ida B. Wells link to the body of the blog post at the end?

A good link to a notable woman who made it into the book . . .