General Mills and its predecessors have used the "Betty Crocker" brand since 1921. Today, the name appears on two seemingly contradictory...

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“Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food”
by Susan Marks
Simon & Schuster, 274 pp., $23

General Mills and its predecessors have used the “Betty Crocker” brand since 1921. Today, the name appears on two seemingly contradictory sets of products — popular cookbooks, extolling the virtues of old-fashioned home cooking, and even more popular cake mixes and convenience foods.

The reasons for this split date back to the early years of the mascot/icon/character. The Washburn Crosby Co., makers of Gold Medal flour, employed an all-female staff of home economists to create recipe booklets and answer customers’ letters. Ad manager Samuel Gale decided to put a single name and persona to these responses.

Pseudonymous housewife-helpers already existed in newspapers and magazines (the Hearst papers had “Prudence Penny,” for instance). But under Gale and head writer Marjorie Child Husted, “Betty” developed into an identifiable character. She had a personality — progressive and caring, never condescending. She had a mission beyond selling products — to help women make better meals and have happier families.

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Soon, she also had a voice or, rather, many voices. “Betty Crocker’s Cooking School of the Air” originally employed a different actress in each city to read Husted’s scripts, until it moved to the new NBC radio network in 1927. Among other things, the show taught housewives how to properly use their first electric ovens. In the Depression and war years, “Betty” taught how to cook cheaply and without waste. In the 1950s, the company transitioned the Crocker brand with the Husted-edited “Picture Cook Book.”

Betty celebrated the kitchen life but always advocated modern techniques and products, including General Mills’ mix products (starting with Bisquick in 1931) and its appliance line (now made under license by Franklin Chef). As more women worked outside the home, General Mills found greater profits in added-value convenience products. As Betty’s official portrait was regularly repainted and updated, her name appeared on everything from steam irons to Fruit Roll-Ups snacks.

For “Finding Betty Crocker,” author Susan Marks researched Betty’s morphs and evolutions for seven years. She wrote a thesis about Betty for her women’s-history degree. Like the Crocker brand, Marks’ curiosity evolved into new products, including a documentary film and this book. With a smooth writing style and a flair for verbal imagery, Marks follows Betty’s various guises as they followed American women and families.

As tour guides once explained to test-kitchen visitors, “Betty Crocker isn’t one woman. She’s many women, who all use her name.”

She’s also many things to many people. She’s an icon of traditional feminine roles, a nostalgic throwback to “simpler times” and a front for one of the world’s biggest food companies. And she represents wholesome Midwestern values in a fun, friendly way.

So does Marks’ book.