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Chicago mixed it up at World’s Columbian Exposition

Nancy Green, in character as Aunt Jemima.

Nancy Green, in character as “Aunt Jemima.”

This summer marks the 120th anniversary of the World’s Columbian Exposition. The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 opened to the public in May, and introduced quite a few new foods, both directly and indirectly. The six-month-long fair put the blue ribbon on Pabst Beer, brought Chicagoans tamales and Vienna Beef hot dogs and led to the invention of the brownie. The fair also brought the DeJonghes, who would later create their garlicky namesake shrimp dish, to the city. The lady managers of the fair produced a cookbook, as well.

Among other innovations was the first ready mixed, self-rising pancake flour. Aunt Jemima got its first big promotion at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Standing at the world’s largest flour barrel, 12 feet high, and 24 feet across, actress Nancy Green, in character as “Aunt Jemima,” sang songs, told stories and demonstrated the mix, cooking and serving thousands of pancakes to fairgoers.

Green’s world’s-fair booth attracted so many people that special policemen had to be assigned to keep the crowds moving. The manufacturer, R.T. Davis Milling Co., sold more than 50,000 orders, and fair officials awarded Green a showmanship medal and certificate. She served as a living trademark for the brand until she died in Chicago in a car accident in 1923.

Green’s image had become so popular that the company was renamed the Aunt Jemima Mills Co. in 1914, but the firm was acquired in 1926 by Chicago-based Quaker Oats Co., which still owns the brand. For the Century of Progress Exposition, the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, the company’s advertising agency brought Aunt Jemima back to life in the person of Anna Robinson, who promoted the product until her death in 1951. (That fair, held 80 years ago, also introduced new food items, among them Miracle Whip and the automatic Coke dispenser.)

After activists reportedly threw Quaker Oats into Lake Michigan and threatened boycotts in protest of the minstrel-inspired image of a black slave cook, the company modernized Aunt Jemima’s trademark image in 1989 into that of a professional-looking African-American woman wearing pearl earrings and a lace collar.