So, the final instalment of this 3-post arc has arrived, slightly late of course thanks to my crappy new work schedule at a job that I absolutely can’t wait to quit. In any case, I want to thank Shannon immensely for allowing me to use her paper for this series! If you need to catch up, read part one and part two to get a better sense of what’s going on in Shannon’s paper.
If anyone else would like to guest post here, I’d love to have some different voices here over the summer months. Please contact me if you’re interested!
Betty’s store of goodwill was truly tested in the years after WWII when factories which had previously turned out military rations shifted their focus to civilians (Shapiro 9). Erika Endrijonas explains the dichotomous choices and conflicting messages women faced.
“Buy processed foods, but cook from scratch; be creative but follow directions precisely; accommodate all family members’ preferences but streamline the food purchase and preparation process; work part-time but be a full-time homemaker; and do it all with little or no training.” (157)
Frozen dinners in aluminum trays, orange juice, fish sticks, and fruits and vegetables proved to be winners, but many less-savory products flopped due to the low prevalence of freezer ownership and, of course, the unappealing nature of deep-fried canned hamburgers. While frozen dinners might have been acceptable on very rare occasions (when Mrs. Consumer was away, for example, but hubby still needed dinner) they were not a staple food in regular use. The popular view of processed foods was so negative that when surveys presented women with nearly identical shopping lists and asked for opinions of the women who prepared those lists, the inclusion of instant coffee resulted in vehement tirades against the character of the woman who dared to purchase a convenience item. (Shapiro 54) The frozen foods industry made good, if unintentional, use of Christine Frederick’s suggestions for selling products to women: “supply her with an instruction booklet…teach her by actual demonstration…[and] give her practical experience.” (183) Christopher Holmes Smith documents how, through enthusiastic advertising and instruction in the use of frozen foods in Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping, House Beautiful and other national publications, experts showed women how to effectively use frozen products to reliably produce edible meals, overcoming the quality objection if not social stigma. (192)
Cooking by hand and from scratch remained popular throughout the 1950s despite the proliferation of processed foods. Advertisers continually emphasized the convenience of new products, but women were more interested in taste than speed, as few women reported feeling pressed for time when preparing meals. (Shapiro 46) An extensive survey of homemakers between 1938 and 1961 revealed that cooking was the chore most enjoyed (or least disliked), followed by caring for children. (Shapiro 45) A much smaller survey of newspapers and women’s magazines from the 1950s showed that cooks commonly used processed foods such as instant potatoes to take shortcuts, but true enthusiasm was reserved for from-scratch recipes. (Shapiro 50) Even the continually increasing employment of women did not result in correspondingly dramatic rises in the use of pre-made foods. (Shapiro 48)
Why were women unwilling to buy these new, helpful products? Earlier processed goods were inconsistent in quality and their fresh or handmade counterparts tended to taste better, so mistrust of packaged foods could certainly be a factor. Additionally, women who used packaged foods tended to feel guilty or anxious about not doing their wifely duties. Women felt they had a “moral obligation to cook,” and tossing together cans just didn’t qualify as cooking. (Shapiro 52) Given the heavy influence on the power of cooking by prominent authorities of the time, this is not surprising; when women had been repeatedly told that their family’s health and social success depended on the quality of the food they consumed, some distress is fully rational in the face of pre-assembled ingredients. Furthermore, hastily slapping together a meal violated the definition of cooking; in other words, cooking had to involve work, and while cutting corners was acceptable, heavy use of processed foods was cheating. Women struggled to find “the balance between convenience and taste and duty” as the meaning of home cooking shifted. (Endrijonas 159)
Cake mix in particular was a hard sell. If food was love, cakes and other desserts were sugar-infused, chocolate coated morsels of gooey affection. Two full chapters were devoted to cake recipes and another to frosting in Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, debuted in 1950. (Marks 139) Affectionately known as Big Red, the cookbook also suggests exhausted women make use of convenience foods, including General Mills’ Bisquick Biscuits, and cake mixes. (Marks 147) Betty Crocker cake mixes arrived on the market in 1947 in white, yellow, spice, and Devil’s Food flavors. Cake mix baking proved just a little too easy, and few homemakers wanted to “drop this scientific marvel into a bowl, ad water, mix, and bake.” (Marks 168) As one woman said, “the prospect of serving a cake that took no skill just wasn’t very alluring.” (Shapiro 74) Additionally, women were accustomed to viewing cakes as great creative accomplishments; “the cake was food as sculpture, frosted in living color.” A woman’s baking skills defined “motherly love and womanly competence.” (Endrijonas 160) Cake mixes did not rival the success of pancake mix or Bisquick until a psychologist suggested women might prefer if powdered eggs were left out of the mix so fresh eggs could be added. (Marks 168) Though sales improved, cake mix had still not gained mainstream popularity by the 1950s. Many women may have refrained from using cake mix due to fear of social stigma or harming their family’s health with substandard food. (Marks 170)
By 1948, televisions resided in 1 million American homes, so it was only natural that Betty’s print and radio empire be extended to add a visual element. Adelaide Hawley, who had provided one of Betty’s radio voices, was selected to play Betty on-screen. (Marks 219) From 1950 to 1958, Betty starred in several cooking shows and was a regular guest on others. By 1958 about 41 million homes had televisions; however, Betty Crocker’s TV personality never caught on. Where Betty’s radio presence served her listeners, Betty’s TV presence preached to them. The figure behind the desk, calmly describing how to make edible food without cooking skills, offered little in the way of entertainment or information. Unlike her radio audience in the 1930s and 1940s, viewers of the 1950s were less desperate for assistance. The prosperity of the 1950s offered emotional challenges for homemakers but questions of identity and happiness were much more difficult to address than Depression-era budgeting or fabricating a sugarless chocolate cake. When she first appeared in public life there was some debate about whether or not Betty was a real woman, but by the 1950s anyone could visit the Betty Crocker kitchens and see that Betty was not a single person; rather, she was composed of “many women who [worked there] under her name.” (Marks 181) Layer after layer of believability was stripped away; as she became “increasingly identified with packaged-food cuisine,” Betty existed solely to sell cake mix and everyone knew it. (Shapiro 195)
Cooking certainly did not fall from favor in the 1960s as evidenced by the rousing success of Julia Child in “The French Chef,” a cooking program which differed from Betty Crocker’s infomercials in every way imaginable. Like the early radio Betty, Child’s “point of view was always that of the woman in the kitchen, desperate to cook and dependent on having good information.” (Shapiro 222) Child also emphasized consistency and practicality, but unlike TV-Betty, “Child promised she could make the cook strong instead of making cooking fast, cheap, and convenient.” (Shapiro 228) She did the cooking herself, enthusiastically, dynamically, and with definite authority. Humorous and capable, Child explained why methods worked. Furthermore, she was a genuine woman representing good food rather than a collage of people representing Gold Medal Flour. Child gave cooks what they wanted rather than a corporate prescription, and the success of her long-running shows should be noted by marketers who wish to earn their customers’ affection.
The Betty Crockers of the past century, each one an attempted duplicate of a fabricated character, are beautiful examples of simulacra. The Betties could be compared to each other but certainly not to the real Betty Crocker as she was a compilation of ideas without a single origin. General Mills home economists tested her recipes, responded to her mail, and signed her name, but they did not claim to be Betty’s body. Perhaps Marjorie Child Husted could make up part of Betty’s body and mind, while the actresses who read Husted’s words to scores of listeners represent a portion of her voice. Adelaide Hawley, the most memorable on-screen Betty Crocker, has as much right as anyone to represent Betty’s body.
Today the Betty Crocker logo is a signature across a red spoon; a woman has been replaced by a box, a splash of water, an egg or two, and a mixing spoon wielded by even the most inept hands. As the woman left the Betty Crocker image, the humanitarian aspect was removed from General Mills advertising. Historical evidence shows customers appreciate the ability to leave feedback, feeling they have some say in the operations of the modern world’s vast corporate family. Unsurprisingly, Betty Crocker first touched her public by freely sharing relevant information they requested and earned nationwide loyalty by devoting her expertise and corporate resources to making sense of cooking during the Great Depression and WWII. However, when her readers’, listeners’, and viewers’ needs changed to more individual concerns of finding happiness in unpaid domestic labor or juggling formal employment while feeding their families, Betty spoke up with cheery verses about the ease of using her products. Despite increasing distribution through the mass media, Betty Crocker betrayed her readers and listeners when she blatantly revealed her purpose to be selling more cake mix in the name of corporate consumerism; by ignoring her public’s concerns, Betty Crocker transformed from a venerable source of kitchen wisdom into a corporate facade, and her audience never forgave her for implying that a woman, complete with love and carefully developed skills, was no longer needed in the kitchen.
Endrijonas, Erika. “Processed Foods from Scratch: Cooking for a Family in the 1950s.” Kitchen Culture in America. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. 157-173.
Frederick, Christine. Selling Mrs. Consumer. New York: Business Bourse, 1929.
Killing Us Softly 3: Advertising’s Image of Women. Dir. Sut Jhaly. Prod. Media Education Foundation. Created by Jean Kilbourne. Viewed on GoogleVideo. <http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1993368502337678412&q=killing+us+softly>
Marks, Susan. Finding Betty Crocker. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Parkin, Katherine. Food is Love: Food Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. Dir. Jane Anderson. Perf. Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson. Revolution Erie Productions Ltd, 2005.
Schor, Juliet. “The New Politics of Consumption.” Boston Review Summer 1999. <http://bostonreview.net/BR24.3/schor.html>
Shapiro, Laura. Something from the Oven. New York: Viking, 2004.
Smith, Christopher Holmes. “Freeze Frames: Frozen Foods and Memories of the Postwar American Family.” Kitchen Culture in America. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. 175-209.