Who Was Duncan Hines?

By Matt Blitz |

© Chicago Tribune/Getty Images

Look in your cupboard. Like millions of American households, it’s likely that there's a box of Duncan Hines Moist Cake Mix that's been sitting there for weeks, months, maybe even years, just waiting to be finally baked and served. Unbeknownst to many though, Duncan Hines was much more than a seller of dry cake mix. Despite Hines passing away in 1959, every year from 1936 to 1962, a Hines-authored booklet titled “Adventures in Good Eating” was published telling travelers the best places in America to stop for grub - in essence, a precursor to Zagat. While today we seemingly have hundreds of food celebrities, “the most trusted name in food” Duncan Hines just may have been the first.

Born on March 26th, 1880 in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Duncan Hines was the youngest of his family’s six surviving children (he had four other siblings that didn’t survive past infancy). His mother died when he was four and his father was a former Confederate soldier who could not care for the kids due to his war injuries. So, he sent Duncan and a brother to live with their maternal grandparents down the road. It was from his “Grandma Duncan,”(that’s what he called her) that he learned the power of a good meal. "Food was just something to fill the hollow space under my ribs,” Hines would later say about his early days. "Not until after I came to live with Grandma Duncan did I realized just how wonderful cookery could be.” His taste for Southern cooking (which was apparent in his later guides) came from her, who routinely served up apple pie, country ham, cornbread, candied yams and “turnip greens with fatback.” 


The epiphany for his guide came while he was working as an ad man. Moving out west at 18, Hines worked for Wells Fargo and a copper mining company before heading to Chicago with his wife Florence. He got a job with a direct mail advertising company, which often took him on the road. Always looking for a good meal, Hines jotted down in a notebook all the best restaurants from his travels. Soon, co-workers took notice and started to ask him for recommendations. Also, obsessed with the new car culture, Hines would spend his weekdays driving for work and his weekends taking “gastronomic tours” with his wife. Despite this many miles, he never had an accident - at least according to himself. As Hines’ biographer Louis Hatchett writes that Hines thought of himself as a model driver, making sure never to drive at night and to “always obey the signs.” 

In 1936, Hines published the first edition of “Adventures in Good Eating.” His rationalization for doing this made a ton of sense. “There were book reviewers to tell us what to read, art and drama critics to advise us what to see,” Hines would later say, “but there were no authoritative and unbiased guides to good eating.” It took off, selling almost two million editions between 1936 and 1947. By 1949, “Duncan Hines” had a higher name recognition than the Vice-President of United States (to be fair, the VP at the time was Alben Barkley).


By his own claim, Hines was always honest and refused to accept money from any business for inclusion in his guides. While this may have been the case, Slate’s L.V. Anderson disputes this notion that Hines didn’t participate in the food equivalent of payloa. Selling “Duncan Hines Seal of Approval” signs for restaurants to display in their windows, he generated an annual profit of about $38,000 a year from this practice alone when, at the time, the average US income was only three thousand a year. There were other instances of shady business practices, according to Anderson, like forcing restaurants who he had put in his guide to sell it at their establishment and receiving a shiny new Cadillac as a gift from the “Duncan Hines family of restaurants.”

In the late 1940s, advertising man Roy Park approached the famed Hines about a partnership in regards to licensing his name for food products. Hines, always looking to make a buck, agreed. While it wasn’t immediately successful - with a lineup that consisted of “bread and jam to fancy peaches and pears” - the two stuck it out, eventually naming the company “Hines-Park Food.” In 1950, it was ice cream that turned the new company's’ fortunes around.


"Duncan Hines' Ice Cream" was mostly butterfat, but had terrific sales. By the fall of 1951, Hines-Park Food had a new entry in the dessert market - cake mix. By 1955, the company was generating 50 million dollars in product sales, which is over 440 million dollars today.

Duncan Hines died in 1959 a very rich man. While his company was sold to Procter and Gamble two years before his death, the Hines name lives on forever on the front of those boxes of cake mix in every American cupboard.