Food brands have been flooded with what advertisers call “Identification Characters” since the Industrial Revolution. They’re those fictional faces that appear on the boxes, like Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker, Uncle Ben, and Mrs. Paul. I know, I’m sorry to break the news that there never was a real Betty Crocker. These characters act as brand ambassadors that humanize an otherwise faceless corporation and make the product seem more accessible. They tell us their fish sticks are made from real fish, and we believe them. The convince us to use their mix because the pancakes come out lighter and fluffier than other mixes.
They’re different from cartooney characters like the Jolly Green Giant, or the newly upgraded and sexed-up Mr. Clean. We believe that they are real people.
A few of these brand icons, like Orville Redenbacher and Chef Boyardee were actually real people. Ettore Boiardi, for example, was an Italian-American immigrant born in 1897, who passed through Ellis Island in 1913, and built a food empire that he sold for many millions in 1946.
Legend has it that the African-American chef “Rastus” on the Cream of Wheat box is the actual image of the butler of paper baron Peter Thomson at his Laurel Court Mansion in College Hill. That’s the house where the Archbishop of Cincinnati used to live, and where real pizza king, Buddy LaRosa lived for a short while too.
Aunt Jemima is probably the oldest of these fictional ID characters. She’s also the one whose image has changed the most over time, while causing the most controversy. She has morphed from a post-Civil War tignon-bandana-wearing Mamie to a tight-quaffed, string-of-pearls-wearing, working Grandmother.
These characters have played themselves on TV commercials, in print ads, and some even travelled the country doing food demonstrations for their respective corporations. In the 1910s through the 1950s Bisquick had a fleet of travelling Aunt Jemima’s performing in character at local fairs and showing the versatility of their company’s products. One of our local Findlay Market vendors, Aunt Flora (Katrina Mincy), known for her cobblers, had a great aunt, Flora Saunders, who was one of those travelling Aunt Jemima’s.
Our local Dorsel’s Pinhead Oats had its own ID Character, Dottie Dorsel, named after the founder’s youngest daughter, Dorothea. She ‘authored’ the Dottie Dorsel Cookbook, which presented different recipes, besides goetta, which could be made from pinhead oats and Dorsel’s other products like cornmeal. Dottie has gone from a slim German-American housewife to a light-skinned African American chef.
Kroger had an interesting ID character too to promote their in-store Country Club brand. Her name was Judith Anderson, and she was ‘Manager of the Kroger Housewives Service Department.’ I’ve found only one image of her, showing a delightfully bobbed middle class housewife in her mid to late twenties, smartly dressed and sporting a string of pearls. She produced all sorts of small pamphlets promoting creative uses of the store brand products, each opening with a personal letter from Judith.
Don’t know what to do with that Country Club Marshmallow fluff? No problem! Judith could tell you how to whip up a dessert that was sure to impress your ladies’ tea group. Want to find a product that was versatile and economic for kid’s meals? Again, no problem – Judith had over twenty recipes to use that Country Club Peanut Butter.
Kroger-shopping housewives could write to receive Ms. Anderson’s pamphlets in the mail every week. From 1926-1930, Judith was the voice of Kroger, with her own cooking program on WLW radio, airing from 4:30 – 5 PM Eastern. Kroger customers from St. Louis to Portsmouth could hear her talking through her recipes and offering family dietary advice into the Depression.
Nowadays most brands use celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse to promote their products, rather than these fictional ID characters.