The story starts in 1888, when St. Joseph Gazette editor Chris L. Rutt of St. Joseph, Missouri and his friend Charles G. Underwood bought a flour mill. Rutt and Underwood's Pearl Milling Company faced a glutted flour market, so they sold their excess flour as a ready-made pancake mix in white paper sacks with a trade name. Rutt reportedly saw a minstrel show featuring the "Old Jemima" song and/or a vaudeville performer, who played a character described as "Aunt Jemima", wearing an apron and kerchief. Rutt created the Aunt Jemima character to market the Pearl Milling Company pancake mix. Since Rutt and Underwood were unable to make the project work, they sold their company to the R.T. Davis Milling Company in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1890.
R.T. Davis marketed the ready-made pancake mix using an older, matronly black woman in an apron and kerchief for branding, which was a stroke of genius. Aunt Jemima’s appearance on the package implied long hours in a southern kitchen and an authentic, homey product. Ironically, the actual pancake mix reportedly did not live up to that image....
For the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Davis needed to bring its new brand to live and looked for a woman to personify Aunt Jemima. Enter Nancy Green. Ms. Green, a storyteller, was born a slave in Montgomery County, Kentucky in 1834. She quickly charmed the crowds while doling out pancakes in the booth at the exposition. Her charisma made the Jemima brand so popular that she got a lifetime contract with Davis. This made her the first African-American supermodel and spokeswoman. Leveraging her popularity, the Davis company was renamed the Aunt Jemima Mills Company.
The Aunt Jemima character became so popular, that copycats tried to move in. The Aunt Jemima Mills Company started taking its imitators to court to protect its brand. In 1915, the Aunt Jemima Mills Company filed a suit against Rigney and Company, which had large implications for trademark law in the U.S.
Rigney and Company used the Green’s Aunt Jemima name and an image similar to Green’s portrayal of the character to sell its pancake syrup. Davis’ lawyers argued that Rigney’s use of the character “created in the minds of purchasers the belief that the said goods are a product of the plaintiff.” The judge ruled in favor of the Aunt Jemima Mills Company stating: “while the pancake flour and pancake syrup were not the same product and did not compete with each other, they were related in their uses and consumers could be misled to think they were made by the same company”. The case set a precedent, known as the "Aunt Jemima Doctrine".
Nancy Green became known as the "Pancake Queen" and traveled on promotional tours all over the country. Due to her appeal, flour sales were up all year and pancakes were no longer considered exclusively for breakfast. She was tragically killed in a car crash in Chicago on September 23, 1923. One year later, the Aunt Jemima Mills ran into financial trouble and was bought by the Quaker Oats Company.
Over the years, Aunt Jemima has been personified by several spokeswomen and had a few makeovers. The current Aunt Jemima looks more like a working mother – she is slimmer than the original Aunt, her hair is styled and has a touch on grey, and she is wearing a white blouse and pearl earrings.