This week the Aunt Jemima pancake brand name was “retired,” bringing an end to a 131-year advertising minstrel show. The brand’s current owner, Quaker, finally bowed to the reality that no cosmetic makeover could rehabilitate a character, and business, built on a romanticized fantasy of owning human beings as property. (Read this excellent review of Aunt Jemima’s history to see how the slave-owning fantasy was sold in pancake form.)
The heart of Aunt Jemima’s problem was the “mammy” logo that represented its products for a century. Yet the brand name itself is a less talked-about but critical part of the story. The use of a personal name, and specifically Jemima, set a century of culture-shaping events into motion. It stands as an example of the power of names in guiding perceptions, and how a name’s meaning can both shape and be shaped by the world around it.
How a Name Became a Brand
In 1889, two white men who owned a Missouri flour mill created the world’s first pre-made pancake mix. They decided to market their creation with an Old South theme, which at the time connoted hearty, nostalgic food. They could have called the product, say, “Dixie’s Finest” or “Swanee Pancake Flour.” But instead they borrowed a name from a song popular at blackface minstrel shows: Aunt Jemima.
Jemima is a biblical name, one of the beautiful daughters of Job, and comes from a Hebrew word for dove. If that’s all your name book says about Jemima’s “meaning,” though, you need a new name book. As the flour marketers clearly recognized, Jemima was part of a genre of biblical and classical names commonly associated with American slavery. Beulah, Dinah and Remus are other examples. Paired with “Aunt,” a usage with echoes of slavery, it perfectly evoked the plantation atmosphere the flour merchants wanted to link to their product.
The name became destiny. Because they had given their product a human name, a few years later they decided to create a human character to match. At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Aunt Jemima’s Flour hired an African-American woman named Nancy Green to bring their brand name to life. Green, who was herself born into slavery, was dressed to fit the mammy stereotype and instructed to hand out pancakes and tell rosy, nostalgic stories about life in the Old South. She was a huge popular success. The Aunt Jemima brand grew rapidly behind her image.
The name-based character continued to be the focus of product marketing for generations. Aunt Jemima acquired a slave plantation backstory. She made personal appearances. She had her own radio show. Years before Hattie McDaniel appeared in Gone With the Wind, actress Anna Robinson was touring America and posing with movie stars in the guise of a rotund, dark-skinned, kerchiefed, smiling mammy figure. This relentless marketing not only sold pancakes and rewrote history. It also turned the name Jemima itself into the embodiment of the benign-mammy myth.
The Name-Die Was Cast
Jemima was a steady if uncommon baby name choice in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the time of Nancy Green’s debut as Aunt Jemima, the name ranked #836 (a tie) among all U.S. girls’ names. In the 127 years since the brand took hold, it has not approached that popularity height again. Even after a recent jump in popularity, Jemima is still less common than girls’ names like Heiress, MiAmor and Wednesday.
That’s a first sign that Jemima’s popularity as a name has been dramatically influenced by the Aunt Jemima character. A second is that the same Jemima drought has not been seen in other countries. In England, for instance, where the most famous fictional Jemima was Beatrix Potter’s “Jemima Puddle-Duck,” the baby name continued to be moderately popular. The Wikipedia page for the name Jemima tells the tale. It lists 14 prominent real and fictional Jemimas born (or created) since the advent of the Aunt Jemima brand. Not one of them is American.
Jemima is hardly the only baby name to have suffered from negative cultural associations. In recent years, the name Isis became one of the fastest-falling names in history after the rise of the brutal jihadist group. The name Alexa plummeted when Amazon turned the name into a command. But the cultural toll on the name Jemima is harder to measure, because it’s largely a case of “what might have been.”
Over the past century, American parents have shown a voracious appetite for fresh, attractive girls’ names with literary and biblical roots. If you look at Jemima’s style and popularity solely from 1880-1893, the closest matches were Drucilla, Tabitha, Abigail, Serena, Deborah and Jessica. Even the rarest of those, Drucilla, has been far more popular than Jemima over the decades since. The rest are in a whole different popularity league. But Jemima, under the weight of pancakes and history, never stood a chance. No longer a viable baby name, Jemima became a symbol.
A Stereotype By Any Other Name?
The choice of Aunt Jemima as a product name shaped the way the product was marketed, but how much did it fuel the brand’s success? And Jemima in particular…would another name have become a racial symbol in the same way? If the flour company had chosen the name “Aunt Sally” instead, after another well-known minstrel song, would Sally be the off-limits name today?
For a clue, consider the naming legacy of the sitcom “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” That series, which ran for over 30 years on radio and television, was a notorious cavalcade of racial stereotypes.The television series was taken off the air in 1953 after formal protests from the NAACP. The name Amos, which fit the biblical slave name mold, became indelibly associated with the show and all it stood for. It sank in popularity and never fully recovered. The name Andy, though, never missed a beat.
Similarly, consider the Uncle Ben’s brand of rice.
The Uncle Ben character’s roots in American culture aren’t as deep as Aunt Jemima’s, since the brand only dates back to the 1940s. Its visual imagery has been correspondingly less extreme as well. But the “Uncle” title, like “Aunt,” was used to refer to enslaved people, and the character and marketing were conceived with an Antebellum South style. Tellingly, in the wake of the Aunt Jemima decision, the corporate owners of Uncle Ben’s Rice announced plans to “evolve the Uncle Ben’s brand” in order to help combat racism.
Yet 70+ years of Uncle Ben as Aunt Jemima’s nearest cultural relation have had no effect on the name Ben. It remains extremely popular; in fact, the number of babies receiving Ben- names, such as Benjamin, Bennet, Bentley and Benedict, recently hit an all-time high. In all my years of talking to parents and reading naming forums, I have never known any prospective baby namer to worry that Ben will remind people of Uncle Ben.
A simple, ultra-common name like Ben or Andy has a teflon quality. It’s so familiar and neutral that no single association can stick to it. That helps protect the name from being overwhelmed by negative cultural branding, and from itself turning into a weapon that furthers the cultural assault. Jemima was far more vulnerable, and has paid the price.
Once a name has become part of history, can it ever recover its own identity? An extreme example is the name Adolf, which remains unused and unusable 75 years after World War II. But as cynical as this may sound, the name Adolf has an extra hurdle: fashion. It’s simply not the style of name that parents want today.
Fashion is more friendly to Jemima. Fresh, unusual biblical names are more prized than ever. Jemima is built around a fashionable long “i” sound, offers the appealing nickname Jem, and ends in the perennially popular -a. If it weren’t for Aunt Jemima, it would be a natural alternative to the hit name Delilah. If.
Another factor is that unlike other historically poisoned names, the poisoning of Jemima was active, backed by decade after decade of marketing. When the ads stop, when the supermarket aisles are no longer stocked with reminders of slavery, will the linkage last? To adults who grew up with the “mammy” logo, a wave of baby Jemimas may still feel uncomfortable, even unthinkable. But coming generations will be a test case of our cultural memory, and how fully a brand can own a baby name.