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Racism, Stereotypes and Plastic Product Premiums

Plastic consumer products often offer a window onto American history and culture.  Among the most striking and, for many, objectionable, objects in the Syracuse University Plastics Collection is a set of polystyrene Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose Salt and Pepper Shakers, first manufactured  in 1949 by Fiedler & Fiedler (F & F) Mold and Die Works Company of Dayton, Ohio for the Quaker Oats Company.  These and other immensely popular premiums perpetuated racial stereotypes, and are representative of the everyday racism pervaAunt Jeminma and Uncle Mose salt and Pepper Shakers (1949)sive in America for much of the 20th century.

American companies first began offering premiums and prizes on a large scale to encourage and reward consumers in the 1930's.  Among the most successful premium campaigns was the one launched by the Quaker Oats Company to promote its Aunt Jemima pancake mix in the late 1940's.  The well-known collectibles appear on the cover of Kenneth W. Goings' book Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).  Quaker Oats was among the first companies to successfully market their trademark characters as something more; as popular figures in the vein of comic strip and cartoon characters.

Quaker's first venture, a syrup pitcher, was created as a premium because of its close tie-in with the product and was modeled as a figure of Aunt Jemima, the emblem of the brand.  The pitcher was molded by Fiedler & Fiedler (F & F) Mold and Die Works Company in Dayton, Ohio.  It was made of Lustrex heat-resistant polystyrene in four parts (two halves of the body and two halves of the lid) and then decorated with seven spray-painting operations.  Lustrex was a Monsanto produced polystyrene.  In 1948 the pitcher was offered as a mail-in premium at 35 cents plus one box top.  The offer was so successful that the mail-in offer had to be temporarily discontinued while inventory was accumulated.  The offer was resumed early in 1949 as a combined mail-in and over-the-counter offer, and the Aunt Jemima pitcher became the best-selling adult premium of the time.

To follow up on their syrup pitcher success, Quaker Oats commissioned F & F to produce a polystyrene salt and pepper shaker set in the shape of Aunt Jemima and her husband, Uncle Mose. These sets were introduced in the fall of 1949, also as a combined mail-in and over-the-counter offer.  The price for the set was 50 cents, and sales were so successful that the offer was repeated again in 1950.  Simultaneously with the Aunt Jemima campaign, Quaker Oats also had F & F mold a Lustrex cream pitcher/drinking mug in the shape of the head of the company’s other erstwhile trademark character, Mr. Quaker.  This premium was introduced in the fall of 1949.

By the mid-20th century Aunt Jemima was one of the best known American product logos in America.  The association of Aunt Jemima, a stereotypical black “mammy,” with Quaker's product dates back to 1889 when, according to historian Kenneth Goings, Charles Rutt of St. Joseph, Missouri, named the self-rising pancake mix he had developed after the minstrel show/vaudeville character “Aunt Jemima.”  A year later Rutt sold the product to the R.T. Davis Milling Company which featured it prominently at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Domestic servant Nancy Green was hired for the part of Aunt Jemima, a role she continued until her death in 1923.  Davis Milling Company offered premiums but also began the practice of placing Aunt Jemima’s “portrait’ on products such as flour scoops, and promoting a fictional biography of the character.

Quaker Oats Company, which acquired the Aunt Jemima brand in 1926, continued this marketing strategy, promoting the product at the 1933 World’s Fair and registering the Aunt Jemima trademark in 1937.  All these efforts solidified the acceptance of the stereotype of the happy, nurturing slave “mammy.”  The publication of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind in 1936 and the production of the movie in 1939 with Hattie McDaniel in the Academy-award winning role of Mammy made the archetype -- misleading as it was -- as much a part of popular Civil War lore as Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. 

In the post-World War II era Quaker Oats employed a variety of advertising campaigns that reached tens of millions of Americas.  Thus, at a time when Jim Crow laws were first being challenged in the South, the Aunt Jemima label continued to present the image of a happy slave or servant on breakfast tables nationwide.  In the mid-1950's the company opened the Aunt Jemima restaurant in Disneyland, where Aylene Lewis was hired to portray Aunt Jemima.  The “Mammy” image was maintained by the company until 1989 when Aunt Jemima was finally given a makeover: her bandana was removed and she was given pearl earrings and a slimmed-down figure.

Many premiums at the time were aimed at children and teenagers.  While the majority were tied to radio programs, other types of premiums and product tie-ins were promoted by the auto industry, railroad and shipping lines, and other product areas where brand name identification was important to reinforce customer loyalty and to attract a wider audience.  The circulation of premiums and product memorabilia including pins, decals, postcards, ashtrays, and other portable items provided extensive free publicity in a highly competitive age. 

After World War II, the development of inexpensive polystyrene injection molded plastics greatly expanded the market for premiums, and also the number and variety of items made. In January 1950 Modern Plastics wrote: “Over a billion dollars a year – that is the premium market in the United States.  The market is growing rapidly – and plastics’ share of that market is growing even more rapidly. In 1949, according to some experts, plastic premiums captured about half the total premium market.”  There were practical economic reasons for some of this success.  Plastics were lighter and therefore less costly to mail, and they were also less likely to break in transit.  More importantly, injection molding made it possible to manufacture millions of identical items quickly and – if the design was not too demanding – cheaply.  The moldable nature of plastics allowed an almost infinite number of premium products to be designed and produced, often in series, which required limited design modifications.

The Plastics Collection of Syracuse University has many other premium items.  Close study of these often simply produced souvenirs provides insight into the popularity of plastics, but also into American cultural tastes and trends of past decades.

The Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose Salt and Pepper Shakers were donated to the Plastics Collection by Plastics Hall of Fame member Laurence Broutman as part of large collection of mid-20th century plastics. (SDG)

Sources:

“Aunt Jemima: Our History,” online at http://www.auntjemima.com/aj_history/

Goings, Kenneth W.  Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1994)

“Premiums: Molded by the Millions,” Modern Plastics, Vol 27:5 (January 1950), 160.

Tumbusch, Tom. Illustrated radio premium catalog and price guide, including comic characters, pulp hero, cereal, TV, and other premiums. (Dayton, Ohio: Tomart Publications, c. 1989).