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Who was Betty Crocker?

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Portraits of Betty Crocker, 1936–1981. Photograph by the Cartwheel Company.

For many Americans, the name Betty Crocker evokes an image of domestic perfection. From the often-reissued Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook to the iconic red spoon logo that bears her signature, Betty Crocker is one of the most recognized names in cooking. It comes as a surprise to many that “America’s First Lady of Food” is, in fact, fictional.

Betty Crocker got her start not in the kitchen but in the advertising department of the Washburn Crosby Company of Minneapolis. After an October 1921 contest in the Saturday Evening Post, Washburn Crosby received many household questions along with contest entries. Samuel Gale, head of advertising, wanted to answer the questions but felt that the advice should come from a woman. Gale solved his problem by inventing Betty Crocker. Her last name was chosen to honor former company director William G. Crocker. “Betty” was chosen because it sounded cheerful and friendly.

The advertising staff began to answer consumer questions using Betty Crocker’s name and persona. The answers, provided by the all-female home service department, promoted a new kind of cooking. Betty’s answers encouraged standard pan sizes, measurements, and cooking temperatures. She gave advice about how to use new electrical appliances. And she offered homemakers nationwide the chance to receive personal advice from a kindly figure who signed each letter, “Cordially Yours, Betty Crocker.”

In 1924, the Washburn Crosby Company bought a faltering radio station and renamed it WCCO. On October 2, the first Betty Crocker Home Service Program premiered on the station. Betty, voiced by Washburn Crosby home economist Blanche Ingersoll, promoted good cooking as the secret to a happy home.

By the following year, The Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air was offering listeners a chance to cook along with Betty. In twenty-seven years on the air, over one million people completed the program. By the end of 1925, the two radio programs were on the air in twelve regional markets. While different women voiced Betty in each city, they read scripts in the main Betty Crocker office in Minneapolis.

While Blanche Ingersoll provided Betty’s voice in the Twin Cities, it was another home economist, Marjorie Child Husted, who drove her persona. Husted had joined the Washburn Crosby Company sales team in 1923. She led a team of home economists to create and triple-test recipes to meet the Betty Crocker standard. She also wrote the scripts for Betty Crocker’s radio broadcasts. Husted carefully shaped the public face of Betty Crocker. She arranged for “Betty” to interview Hollywood stars about cooking, their favorite recipes, and their home lives.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Betty Crocker brand responded to the shifting needs of American homemakers. During the Great Depression, she offered tips for household thrift as Husted and her staff worked to create low-cost recipes that would stretch food budgets. During World War II, she advertised recipes for rationing and encouraged patriotic work on the home front. In 1945, Fortune magazine declared Betty Crocker the second most popular woman in America.

Also during the war, Husted worried that women were not being honored for their work in the home. She developed the Betty Crocker American Home Legion in 1944 to recognize women for their contributions. Husted championed the rights of women in the workplace, criticizing General Mills and other companies for discriminating against their female employees.

The 1950s brought changes for Betty Crocker. The step-by-step instructions of the Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook (1950) helped make it a best seller. In 1954, General Mills introduced Betty Crocker’s red spoon logo that gave cookbooks, cake mixes, and other items the Betty seal of approval. In 1958, the Betty Crocker Test Kitchens moved from Minneapolis to General Mills’ headquarters in Golden Valley. Tour guides often found themselves consoling guests who had been shocked to find that their cooking heroine wasn’t real.

Betty Crocker’s popularity waned in the later decades of the twentieth century. However, cookbooks, recipes, and products bearing her logo, signature, and portrait continued to be produced. In 1996, a new Betty Crocker portrait was made by blending the faces of seventy-five contest winners with the previous portrait to create a Betty for the next century.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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