For over seven decades, brownie, frosting, Hamburger Helper and mystery fruitcake enthusiasts across the world have been asking the same question: Is the beloved, seemingly ageless homemaker Betty Crocker real? Did she live and breathe like other well-known food icons like Colonel Sanders, Duncan Hines or Chef Boyardee? Or was she a phony like Dr. Pepper? Unfortunately, Crocker is more Pepper than Debbie in that she is not — and never has been — a real person. But the truth is a bit more complicated. Here's the tale of how the woman that was once called "America's First Lady of Food" was created.
It all began with a puzzle. In the back of the October 1921 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, a jumbled cut-out puzzle appeared alongside an ad for Gold Medal Flour, a product produced by the Washburn Crosby Company of Minneapolis. If readers arranged the puzzle — a small main street scene with townspeople hurrying past a Gold Medal sign — and sent it back, they would receive a prize of a pincushion in the shape of a flour sack. The response was, for whatever the reason may be, overwhelming. The relatively small staff of Washburn Crosby received over 30,000 completed puzzles, all looking for their pincushion prize. What's more, hundreds of letters accompanied these finished puzzles asking questions like "What's a good apple pie recipe?" or "How long I should knead dough?"
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According to Susan Marks' book Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America's First Lady of Food, Washburn's ad department manager Samuel Gale saw this complication as an opportunity. Normally, when questions were sent in, he would answer the letters himself while including recipes from the all-female home service staff down the hall. But Gale always felt bad that it was him, a man, who was signing the letters. "He felt sorta strange about it," Marks told CBS News in 2005. "(Gale) thought a woman at home does not want advice from a man who supposedly doesn't know his way around the kitchen." So, he came up with up a sort of pseudo female him — a know-it-all, take-charge, ageless homemaker named Betty Crocker.
The name, persona and signature came from a grab bag of influences. "Crocker" was in honor of the recently retired and beloved former director of the company, William G. Crocker. "Betty" was simply because it sounded wholesome and cheery. For the signature, which would go on to adorn every letter, recipe, box of brownies and tub of frosting to this day, there was a company-wide competition. It was won by a secretary named Florence Lindeberg, who's neat, ornamental but legible signature now forever belongs to Betty Crocker. It soon became company policy that every letter and piece of correspondence back to a member of the public was finished off with a swoosh of the Crocker pen, so much so that others at the company were trained to write like Lindeberg.
Wives, homemakers and kids across the country received letters from Betty Crocker, answering questions like how long to bake chocolate chip cookies, Then there was this query that Marks shared with CBS News Correspondent Cynthia Bowers in 2005: "I don't make your fudge cake because I like white cake. But my neighbor does. Is there any danger of her capturing my husband?" In 1924, Crocker got turned onto the burgeoning new media of radio with her own show. At first, it was only on-air in Minneapolis with "Betty Crocker" (an actress) dispensing recipes and tossing out advice to women across the city. However, the show became so popular that within a year, it went national with different actresses portraying Crocker in numerous American cities (with appropriately regional accents). For decades after, Crocker became sort of a mentor and best friend for those kitchen warriors around the nation.
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In 1945, controversy struck. That year, an article in Fortune Magazine said Crocker was the second-most popular woman in America (trailing only first lady Eleanor Roosevelt), but also called her a "fake" and a "fraud." It exposed Crocker for who she really was — an invention of an advertising department trying to sell flour. But it didn't matter. In some ways, that was her appeal. People "just wanted that connection with someone who seemed to know it all... Whether she was real or not, they could get a response back from her," said Marks in 2005, "And that actually helped her [...] to become almost real."
Nearly a hundred years after Betty Crocker was "born," she is still giving out recipes, answering questions
and inspiring a new generation of cooks and bakers. While Crocker may have been a fake marketing creation, one could argue she's perhaps as real as it gets.