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Brand Curse: The Name Jemima in America

June 19, 2020 laurawattenberg 9 Comments

Brand Curse: The Name Jemima in America

June 19, 2020 LauraWattenberg 9 Comments

Vintage print ad showing "mammy" figure with pancakes, and a description of "old-time plantation flavor"
1920s Aunt Jemima advertisement

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.

Vintage Uncle Ben's Rice ad showing a gray-haired African-American man, and tin showing a Mississippi riverboat

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.

And Now?

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.

LauraWattenberg
LauraWattenberg

Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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9 Comments

  • Emmeline June 20, 2020 at 7:47 pm

    I always liked the name Jemima. I live and grew up in the US, but we didn’t buy that brand and was only vaguely familiar with it growing up. To me Jemima has a sweet, fresh sound, and a plus is that it reminds me of the little girl from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
    I have lots of favorite names, so the controversy (and the fact that places like the UK it is a mom name) would lead me to choose something else. But I’ve always wondered, what is wrong with naming an American girl Jemima? Why would sharing a name with a pancake mix be negative? Or is it that she is Black / former slave? but why would sharing a name with a fictional former slave be a negative?
    It’s not like having been in slavery makes them a bad person. Making a living after slavery by selling pancake mix to racist white people does not make the actresses who portrayed Aunt Jemima bad people, they were just doing what they could to make a living- though a controversial living then and now.
    I find your parallel to Adolf a false equivalence; apart from the unpopular sound of his name, he was a mass murdering dictator, the echoes of his regime still haunt the Western World. Like Attila, I don’t think there is any coming back for that name.
    And men’s names, as you have pointed out, that are so ubiquitous they could be anyone, won’t show the same effect. Even Amos has been rising the last few years and is now at 655 in the 2018 SSA charts, most of today’s parents unaware the blackface character existed.
    I think a closer (though still imperfect) example would be Betty. No one says you can’t give your kid the name Betty, “because of” Betty Crocker. Betty Crocker is the fictional brand character supposed to represent the typical White suburban middle class housewife, while Jemima is a fictional former slave. Both were created to bring nostalgia and a homey-feel to a White, heteronormative middle American culture. The original implication of both are that they are mothers or mother-figures who are happy to serve their families (because in the mammy myth, the white employers are her “family” regardless of any actual biological ties she might have). The modern twist for both is that they are founders or CEOs; successful working women with families. Neither image, happy homemaker or successful business woman is in itself negative (though each can and have been portrayed and perceived as such. But we aren’t here to discuss women’s roles in society).
    I suppose one could argue that the objection people raise isn’t against the fictional character herself, but brought up against the name because 130 years ago some racist white guys picked that name as the blackface front of their company, forever linking it to their (and the country’s) racism. But less than 100 years ago Margaret Mitchell gave her racist, slave owning, confederate heroine the name Scarlett (making her the most famous Scarlett until Johansson became a star), and no one now says, “no you can’t name your kid Scarlet, didn’t you read/see Gone With The Wind?” (Although the name Scarlett was pretty low on the lists before Johansson’s break out role in 2003, it was in the top 1000, unlike Jemima, and it did start to rise even before 2003, though after that is when it really took off. I do wonder if in the ‘80s, ‘90s and first few years of the 2000s, if that was a conversation that was happening? Did anyone warn Scarlett Johansson’s – or any Scarlett’s – mother away from the name because of GWTW? Or was it chosen because of O’Hara and her perceived strength?). At any rate, if no one assumes that those naming their daughters Scarlett (with or without O’Hara in mind) are racists/bigots, or otherwise approve of the attitudes of her creator, why should anyone assume that parents naming a child Jemima (with or without Aunt Jemima in mind) are racists/bigots, or otherwise approve of the attitudes of her creators?

    Anyway, as far as I can see, in comparisons with other famous fictional characters that serve similar roles or have troubling racist associations, the only one that people fuss about when it comes to using her name is Aunt Jemima, and the only difference between her and the other characters is that she is Black and holds/held a servile position, and has no famous, attractive, (White?), much loved actress to give people another association with the name. The conclusion I draw from current objections to Jemima as a baby name is “God forbid any child ever be associated with Black and servile.“ I reject that attitude, just as I reject the idea that the strongest /spunkiest name for a girl is one that is (or has been until recently) more commonly used for boys. I reject the idea that non-White, non-male is “weak” or “less-than” but I am open to the idea that maybe I have it wrong. Maybe that is not the underlying implication of why people object so vehemently to the name Jemima. Maybe there is another aspect to this situation I haven’t seen, or don’t understand.

    Or, maybe, problematic or not, we just need a new famous Jemima to help Americans see the name in a new light.

    • TheOtherHungarian
      TheOtherHungarian June 21, 2020 at 8:04 pm

      Minor nitpick: actually, Attila is a pretty common name in Hungary. (Keep in mind that there’s a lot of “history is written by the victors” in the demonizing of Attila the Hun.)

    • SisterJudy
      SisterJudy June 22, 2020 at 2:16 am

      The problem is not giving a child the name of a woman who is “Black/former slave”. (Consider the name Harriet; Harriet Tubman is no obstacle). The problem is giving a child the name of a fictional character invented by merchandisers who made money by romanticizing slavery.

    • lucubratrix June 25, 2020 at 2:48 am

      Here’s the issue: Aunt Jemima has a prior history as a racial archetype for about 15 years *before* it became used as the label of the brand, too.

      As far as I can tell it got its start in 1875 as a minstrel song (which would have been performed by a white man in drag and blackface), and inspired several other popular songs also with the same character — which I am taking to mean that basically, Aunt Jemima was the old timey equivalent of a Saturday Night Live recurring character. It was apparently copyrighted and used by the brand when one of the company founders saw the show and thought, “yes, this is the right shtick to market my pancakes”.
      Here’s what it sounds like, if you like me dislike reading song lyrics without the tune: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92EwphX3eJI

      The lyrics were heavily improvised and variable. Some of them about the unending nature of slavery:
      My old missus promise me, Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
      When she died she-d set me free, Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
      She lived so long her head got bald, Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
      She swore she would not die at all, Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!

      And some lyrics that make me think of lynching, although obviously I have no idea what the original intent was:
      The monkey dressed in soldier clothes, Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
      Went out in the woods for to drill some crows, Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
      The jay bird hung on the swinging limb, Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
      I up with a stone and hit him on the shin,Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
      Oh, Carline, oh, Carline, Can’t you dance the bee line, Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!

      Bottom line the Aunt Jemima stereotype predates the brand, but basically as soon as emanicpation happened people started to eulogize what they perceived to be the good old days of slavery and then decided to use that nostalgia as a powerful marketing tool.

      There are other minstrel songs about Jemimas, like Jemima Susannah Lee (George L Rousseau), but they’re not tapping into the asexual mammy archetype in the same way, instead depicting a woman who is desirably light-complected due to likely due to the history of sexual abuse that was part of chattel slavery:
      https://www.loc.gov/resource/sm1876.05530.0/?sp=4
      (Do those lyrics redeem the name for me? No they do not.)

      Interestingly although I find Jemima firmly unusable, there were 62 girls named Jemima were born in 2018, an all time high. (The name hit 20 births/year for the first time in the late 1990s.)

  • Elizabeth June 21, 2020 at 1:54 pm

    I can only speak for me, but I recoil at the thought of naming a child Jemima. Quaker Oats used the persona of Aunt Jemima to sell a product, but they did it by evoking the enslavement and slaughter of human beings. They did this after slavery was technically illegal in this country, to remind white people of “the good old days.” That is repugnant. As is the fact that they continued to use the name after Reconstruction, after the Jim Crow era had passed, after the Civil Rights movement, after Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice were murdered. They continue even today to use the smiling visage of “Aunt Jemima”. They aren’t just selling pancakes; they’re selling the perceived aura of what constitutes home and hearth in the United States. Yuck. That’s not a history I would want to saddle my baby with. To your argument, I associate the name “Aunt Jemima” with Quaker Oats and their deliberate calculation that racism sells, not with the woman/women being depicted. Maybe that’s just me identifying with the oppressors, but that is why I have such a visceral reaction to the name.

  • Nicwoo June 25, 2020 at 2:31 am

    I think it’s going to take a bit longer for Jemima, and in comparison to other brands, just comparing alone is missing the mark. For example: That’s like when people have a “hard to pronounce” name but is ethnically true and then some privileged people saying oh yeah my [maiden name] was German and a mouthful so I get it…! NO. Sorry. It’s truly different. It projects, erases, invalidates. Nicknames for the former example are textbook microaggression whether on purpose or not. The thing about Jemima is that the company refused to do anything different for all the decades until just now. There was no compensation just exploitation which is a pattern some are just barely successful at bringing to the main stream. Every time some one has gone to the store in America besides remembering old or original commercials is seeing that and it’s been a lightning rod. “Minority” here is World Majority actually so I’m sure there’s some healing above what ever association (and it is negative! It can’t be objectively set away!) that comes with this name’s association. It’s lovely and the woman or women that have had to live it were surely more than lovely, forced with more fortitude than I could imagine. Check context- don’t assume history’s timeline of events (advice for statues in question as well).

  • Quiara
    Quiara June 30, 2020 at 6:01 pm

    Tangent: has Remus escaped the slavery association of Jemima/Beulah, thanks to Harry Potter?

    • Namerology
      Namerology July 3, 2020 at 6:02 pm

      Remus is an interesting one. While it’s still very uncommon, the past two years have seen the highest Remus rates in almost a century. Harry Potter presumably helped, but the name is also part of a very hot style. A sampling of other names at or near high points: Amos, Cyrus, Ramses, Magnus, Osiris, Titus.

  • Nicwoo July 5, 2020 at 4:40 pm

    Oof. I just realized that connection between Jemima and the caricature version promoting pancakes in Disneyland until Disney stopped using outside companies. I just looked it up and it is documented as use of a slur still, as well as a lack of appropriate example of diversity for actors hired at the park. The eatery was there until 1970 when the contract ended.

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