Who Was The Real Betty Crocker?
Today, we know her as the premier purveyor of boxed cake mixes, but a generation or two ago, Betty Crocker was the go-to expert for all things baking. It may surprise you to know that one of our longest-lasting and most revered advertising icons once had a lot to say as the host of enormously popular radio programs, newspaper columns, and TV shows---however, she was just as fictional then as she is now. Let's look at the creation of Betty Crocker, the writers, and actresses who portrayed her, and her lasting legacy.
Betty Crocker, a Nom de Plume
Betty Crocker was born at the Washburn-Crosby Company, a flour mill in the 1800s that eventually became the Gold Medal Flour company that you see in grocery stores today. Often, bakers and housewives wrote letters to the Washburn-Crosby Company to ask questions about their products or seek advice on baking matters. The letters were directed to the marketing department, headed by Samuel Gale and his team of all-male employees. Gender roles being what they were at the turn of the 20th century, the men of the department could not answer many of the questions they received, so they had to consult their wives or other women. Gale felt uncomfortable signing his name to the letters he sent back to customers, claiming that women would rather take baking advice from another woman than from a man, so Gale and his team created a fictional woman---chief of correspondence Betty Crocker---and began signing her name to their letters.
Why "Betty Crocker"?
Gale and his team had to come up with a name that sounded authentic, approachable, and authoritative. They selected the first name of Betty because, they said, it was an all-American name the evoked a feeling of cheer and wholesomeness. The team opted to use the last name Crocker to honor William G. Crocker, the former director of the Washburn-Crosby Company who had just retired from his job.
Once the team had a name to use, they needed a signature to go with it, so Gale asked all the female employees of Washburn-Crosby to sign the name "Betty Crocker" on a page. He and his team selected the signature created by Florence Lindeberg, a secretary at the company. It was her writing that appeared at the end of every advice letter the Washburn-Crosby Company sent out.
Betty Crocker, Radio Star
Radio was all the rage in the 1920s, and the marketing department at Washburn-Crosby Company realized that Betty Crocker was a perfect way to get in on the action. By this time, they were answering so many baking advice letters that branching out into a mass audience only made sense. In 1924, they created the Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air as a radio platform for their fictional Betty Crocker, who offered baking tips and answered customer questions on the air. At first, the show was broadcast only on WCCO radio in Minneapolis, near the Washburn-Crosby company headquarters, but it soon became a nationally syndicated show. Before the radio show could even get off the ground, however, the Washburn-Crosby Company had a problem they needed to address: Who would be Betty?
Marjorie Child Husted, A.K.A. Betty Crocker
Washburn-Crosby execs selected Marjorie Child Husted to play the part of Betty Crocker on the radio, but Husted was not simply a voice actress: She was Betty Crocker. She had a degree in home economics from the University of Minnesota and worked as a home economist for the Washburn-Crosby Company. She was experienced and knowledgeable about baking and cooking and knew the company products inside and out. She was an intelligent, personable, and talented writer. In fact, she wrote all the scripts for the radio show and many of the recipes that were used. Under her watch, Betty Crocker became the foremost authority on all thing baking.
A Long-Running Radio Program
The Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air enjoyed a lengthy run on the radio, broadcasting continuously from 1924 to 1953 during the day to appeal to housewives. During those turbulent years, Husted adapted the radio show to the changing times, adding cost-cutting tips during the Great Depression and advice for stretching war rations during World War II. As new products and technology changed baking and homemaking, Husted, as Betty, was ready to help listeners. Husted's Betty Crocker soon became one of the most trusted voices on the radio. As Betty, Husted welcomed several notable guest stars to her radio show, including Jean Harlow, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Joan Crawford.
The Face of Betty Crocker
Fans of The Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air may have been surprised to find out that Marjorie Husted did not look like the image of Betty Crocker they saw on her products. The Washburn-Crosby Company (and later, the Gold Medal Flour company and General Mills) used images of Betty Crocker in print ads and on packaging as early as the 1920s, but the official face of Betty Crocker was created in 1936 by artist Neysa McMein. Using a composite of the female workers of the Washburn-Crosby test kitchen as inspiration, McMein created the dark-haired woman wearing a white blouse and red jacket who would become synonymous with the brand. Though her appearance has been periodically updated, she's instantly recognizable to this day. Even as she approaches her 90th birthday, Betty Crocker doesn't look a day over 32, the age the marketing department decided was old enough to be considered a trusted and experienced homemaker but young enough to give off a stylish, energetic, and modern vibe.
Marjorie Husted's retirement from the radio show in the 1950s conveniently coincided with the show's move to television. Actress Adelaide Hawley, pictured above, was hired as the first person to portray Betty Crocker on TV, but she was not the only one. A series of actresses took turns playing the baking guru on the small screen.
The Face of the Brand
By the 1960s, more than 94% of the population recognized Betty Crocker and accepted her as a baking authority. Today, although her shows were canceled and popular memory of them has faded, Betty Crocker remains a symbol for the happy homemaker and synonymous with excellence in baking.
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