Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Aunt Jemima program

I've explained my opinion on black face and other forms of overt racism before. In the historical context I see it as another ugly museum exhibit. In an effort not to lionize our present selves I discuss it, warts and all. For better or worse I tell the truth as I see it. In 1889 Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood of the Pearl Milling Company debuted the first box of Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour. It did poorly. In 1890 R.T. Davis of the R.T. Davis million company bought them out and brought in Nancy Green to portray the anthropomorphic brand. Quaker oats bought bought him out in turn in 1926. It's there that the official history skips a decade.

Aunt Jemima the radio program (starring Tess Gardella) lasted from 1931-33, with revivals in the 1940s and in the fifties when Amanda Randolph assumed the role.There are no known recordings of the program from the original series, but there are many from the run in the 1940s.

At the time Aunt Jemima was more interested in selling pancake mix than syrup. Shilling aside, the recent appearance of the Mrs. Butterworths Syrup bottle in a Geico ad made me recall another, different syrup bottle with a more sordid history.

The The Aunt Jemima program was on the NBC Red Network back in 1929. It was produced by the produced by the J. Walter Thompson Company, the came group that would later handle the Rudy VallĂ©e Program. These handlers and producers kept minutes for their meetings and it is through that we can see into that world. Henry P. Joslyn described one of their own ads, for Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Flour in the meeting.
"… advertised by a troop of darkies who sing and play for the white folks at Col. Higbee’s plantation. They are real Negroes, headed by J. Rosamond Johnson and Taylor Gordon who have toured Europe as concert singers. They are famous under their own names but go on the air as Uncle Ned and Little Bill... With this pleasing background the announcer told us we were to be transported to Aunt Jemima’s cabin down on the levee, where we would be given a glimpse of a Negro frolic."
Yeah, it's that disingenuous, patronizing tone about their quaint little brown people that gets to me. It's that artificial air of civility. Of course, this stereotype was not particularly offensive in 1930 to the average listener. So Aunt Jemima sales figures climbed after the introduction of the radio program. that year alone sales were up 14%.

The 1940s run of the program was a set of simple 5 minute episodes. We don't know a lot about the 1930s program. We know it centered around a plantation theme to match the print ads and that it was a longer form program. The Aunt Jemima old time radio show includes the Jemima Chorus singing melodious tunes with interjections of announcer Marvin Miller and Aunt Jemima. The program ran every morning at 8:00 am covering household hints, recipes, and the like. It's actually somewhat strange that they didn't hire a black woman, Edith Wilson to voice the character on air until 1947. The other actresses had just been wearing black face at public appearances. Nancy Green, the last black woman to play the character had died in 1923 before the show launched.

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