In 1840, the American press widely circulated illustrations of Queen Victoria’s wedding cake. It was a 300-pound, 14-inch-tall and 10-foot-wide plum cake, decorated with piped floral detailing and topped with a figure of Britannia blessing the couple while cupids sat around them. It was a sharp contrast to the simply iced, single-tier fruit cake that was popular at the time.1
The cake marked the beginning of an era in which the media had an ever-increasing impact on home baking, as home bakers attempted to emulate the elaborate cakes that became more and more popular in the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. Throughout the early twentieth century, two world wars, economic fluctuations, and changing gender norms led food corporations to create advertisement campaigns that pushed home bakers towards certain products, including boxed cake mixes. These campaigns were an early example of how the media continues to influence the way Americans bake at home today.
Introducing Betty Crocker and Corporate Driven “Advice”
In the 1920s, advertisers increasingly directed content at women, spurred partially by the recognition that women in married households allocated as much as 90% of a couple’s disposable income.1 As fewer women baked bread at home, and flour sales declined as a result, General Mills launched their Betty Crocker campaign in 1924 to encourage women to bake cakes at home, and to do so more often. The campaign was successful, and in the first years of the Great Depression, major flour milling companies, specifically their baking supply branches, opened new plants while most other industries struggled. The cake-related branch of General Foods, Inglehart, then the producer of over 75% of the packaged cake flour available on the national market, achieved record sales in 1931.2 Through 1933, the baking industry overall remained profitable and saw only a small decline in employment and wages.3 Advertisement campaigns, directed at women, helped sales continue to grow.
Advertisers created campaigns highlighting the unquantifiable qualities of their products. These campaigns were in part based on studies, such as one in the 1930s of black Americans in Chicago, which found that they were willing to pay the higher prices asked for goods perceived as higher quality.4 Because there was little difference in quality between shortening, sugar, and baking powder produced by different companies, advertising campaigns were crucial to persuade consumers of a product’s perceived superior quality in a competitive market. Advertisers began campaigns that promoted the “wholesome” nature of their products. A 1935 booklet for Jack Frost products, for example, reassured readers that sugar was “wholesome,” a good source of energy, and no more fattening or worse for teeth than any other food, before providing pages of cake and filling recipes.5 A guide from Standard Brand boasted of the wholesomeness of its own baking powder—along with its “purity”—as one of the principal reasons for its self-proclaimed status as a “household standard.”6
The advertiser-supported popular wisdom that women must follow baking directions precisely, and that technical knowledge was essential for success, left women across the nation further susceptible to corporate influence. Recipe writers and advertisers perpetuated the perceived insecurity that women did not trust themselves to know how to adjust recipes in response to food trends or available supplies. These writers created an image for themselves as experts, whose direction home bakers needed to follow in order to succeed. Advertising booklets of the 1930s frequently presented consumers with history, science, and housekeeping tips, all while promoted their corporate interests with varying degrees of subtilty.
These cookbooks gave corporate kitchens authority over taste, rather than the traditional mother or grandmother.7 Many of the pamphlets read like children’s books, filled with pictures and term definitions incorporated into the text. For example, in 1939 Standard Brands published a twenty-page “Guide to Royal Baking,” ostensibly with the goal of educating home bakers about the history and science of the cake-making process. The booklet also provided “tested” recipes, and served as an elongated advertisement for the company’s baking powder and cream of tartar.8 In the following decades, corporations increasingly took out advertisements in magazines designed in a similar fashion to the booklets that came before, writing advice that readers could easily confuse for unpaid content that, in reality, promoting their products.
World War II and the Beginning of Cake Mixes
World War II caused dramatic changes in the available supply of ingredients, and thus steered marketing in a new direction. The Japanese occupation of the Philippines in 1942 and the American reassignment of cargo ships to serve military functions caused a shortage of sugar nationwide.9 As a result, the American government rationed sugar, and so families turned to bakeries for their cake needs to save their sugar allotment for other uses. However, the shrinking supplies of sugar and labor placed disproportionate pressure on small, individually owned bakeries and forced many to close despite increasing demand for their products.10 Large companies such as General Mills and General Foods stayed afloat thanks to their size and diverse products.11 This allowed them to grow into a larger share of the market and gave them greater control.
Those bakeries, both independent and corporate, that made it through the period of rationing experienced unprecedented demand from 1944 to 1947, but their success waned when the box mixes entered the market. After the end of World War II, Pillsbury launched the first chocolate cake mix, and General Mills quickly followed with its own version. From 1947 to 1949, while demand for pre-baked goods fell, consumer demand for boxed cake mixes grew 150%.12 Sales of cake mixes took off, from 70 million packages sold in 1948 to five times that just six years later. During this time, producers promoted cake mixes as a time-saving and equally delicious alternative to baking from scratch. It was no mistake that this marketing campaign coincided with the decline in the average time women spent cooking, which came in part as a result of their increased presence in the workforce outside of homes.
The new industry was still figuring out the most effective means to sell their product. Some producers published recipes that used their mixes as a base and suggested additional ingredients to give women a sense of controlled creativity.13 In the 1950s, producers worked to lower the beating time required for their mixes to reduce the time and effort required of their consumers. Focused on this time-saving aspect, in 1955 Swans Down and Dromedary boasted that their mix required just three minutes of beating time, as opposed to their competitors’ four minutes.14 Some advertisements highlighted that the time women saved using their mixes could then be redistributed to other tasks. Many advertisements showed thin, usually white, often blonde women in immaculate clothing preparing and serving cakes to their husband and children, exuding beauty and femininity. These ads fit into a social climate in which white middle-class women were expected to do more work outside of the home than before, while continuing all of their previous domestic duties, all in support of their husbands.
The influence of corporate advertising on American home baking can be seen in the failure of the one-bowl cake recipes. These recipes were almost as easy to make as box mixes, but not as lucrative for mix producers. Like a box mix, one-bowl cakes required just one bowl and offered home bakers quick prep time and easy clean up. The one-bowl cake seemed to be the natural competitor of cake mixes, and while they gained brief popularity around the same time that cake mixes took off, they quickly dropped away. They were usurped by mixes in large part because boxed mixes were more lucrative for flour producers. Producers charged much higher prices per pound for mixes than for the ingredients separately, so although they briefly promoted one-bowl recipes in their advertisements in the early 1950s, they had a vested interest in making cake mixes more popular.
The long-term influence of the corporate cake campaigns of the 1920s through the 1950s can be found across home baking today.15 Today, the three leading brands alone sell nearly 100 different boxed cake mixes. These companies continue to promote their newest products to a mostly female audience eager to save time and contribute to our #cakestagram world while still having the satisfaction of baking from home and keeping up with rapidly changing trends.
- Harvey Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 29. Return to text.
- “GENERAL FOODS: Igleheart Sales for First 10 Months Set New High Record,” Wall Street Journal (1923–Current File); New York, N.Y., December 3, 1931. Return to text.
- Chicago Bureau, “BREAD PROVIDES PURITY’S PROFIT: Upturn Suggests Margin Over 1933 Dividends—Store and Cake Units Dull $200,000 NET FROM CUSHMAN,” Wall Street Journal (1923–Current File); New York, N.Y., August 5, 1933. Return to text.
- Tracy N. Poe, “The Origins of Soul Food in Black Urban Identity: Chicago, 1915-1947,” American Studies International; Washington 37, no. 1 (1999): 21. Return to text.
- “It’s Fun To Cook With Jack Frost.” 1935. Michigan State University Libraries Special Collections, The Alan and Shirley Brocker Sliker Culinary Collection, MSS 314, Collection Little Cookbooks. Return to text.
- “A Guide to Royal Success in Baking .” 1939. Michigan State University Libraries Special Collections, The Alan and Shirley Brocker Sliker Culinary Collection, MSS 314, Collection Little Cookbooks, 1. Return to text.
- Megan J. Elias, Food on the Page: Cookbooks in American Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 44. Return to text.
- “A Guide to Royal Success in Baking .” Return to text.
- Joseph M. Guilfoyle, “Pies and Cakes: Will Be Fewer and Less Tasty as Bakers Feel the Rationing Pinch Shortage of Shortening Hits,” Wall Street Journal (1923–Current File); New York, N.Y., March 9, 1943. Return to text.
- Guilfoyle, “Pies and Cakes.” Return to text.
- Guilfoyle, “Pies and Cakes,” Wall Street Journal, March 9, 1943. Return to text.
- Sigrid N. Duncan “Bakery Turnaround: Cake, Cookie and Pie Sales End Their Slide, Conventioners Report They’ve Spurted 5% to 25% Ahead of 1949’s Pace Since Labor Day Rising Costs Harry Bakers,” Wall Street Journal (1923–Current File); New York, N.Y., October 19, 1950. Return to text.
- Jane Nickerson, “News of Food: Home-made Fruit Cake Is Suggested as Typical Dish for the Holidays Many Err on the Origin Stems From Old Formula LIGHT FRUTT CAKE (T-T),” New York Times, 1945. Return to text.
- Jane Nickerson, “News of Food: Cake Mixes: All Kinds of Them Can Be Found at Your Grocer’s Easy to Use, They Give Attractive, Tasty Results,” New York Times, 1955. Return to text.
- General Mills offers 28, Pillsbury 31, and Duncan Hines 35 unique mixes “Cakes and Cupcake Mixes,” 2019.; “Cake Mixes.; “Cake Mixes.” Return to text.
Fascinating … To add – Cake mixes that require some effort (eg add water and stir) were more popular in the mid century as women reported in focus groups that they felt like they had made it and could claim they made it – hence why ready to bake mixes weren’t as popular.