Scholarly histories of Betty Crocker in the United States present the fictional General Mills character as a model home economist of the domestic science movement and the foremost illustration of midcentury “live trademark” consumer marketing. Yet it was the medium specificity of radio, and the sonic and nonsonic qualities of disembodiment required to sustain a live trademark, that solidified Betty's place in women's home service programming. Betty Crocker's on-air persona is underexplored and formative in the history of golden-age radio. How did radio make Betty, and how did Betty make radio? This article uses archival documents, listener mail, and surviving broadcasts to build a historiography of a distinctly sonic brand. While the on-air Betty Crocker was a cheerful purveyor of homemaking advice, backstage was a concentrated labor force of real women sustaining a radio-dependent brand identity through the aural, written, and physical personification of a beloved national figure.
AMERICA'S FIRST LADY OF FOOD
In 1945, a Fortune magazine profile of General Mills confirmed that the food manufacturer's “living” trademark Betty Crocker was at the height of her career. The article credits Betty Crocker's success not to General Mills but to radio: “It is fair to say that [radio] did for her career in commerce what it did for Franklin D. Roosevelt's in politics.”1 Today Betty Crocker's reputation precedes her in the brand's recognizability, whether through its name or its red spoon logo on cake mix boxes, but in the United States at midcentury, Betty Crocker was a voice on the radio and a signature on mail to listeners. Although she never was a real woman, this fictional personification of a General Mills home economist felt real to many when she was voiced each week by the women who brought the brand to life on the air. Foundational to the genre of home service programming, Betty Crocker radio (fig. 1) shepherded U.S. housewives through a depression and a world war with advice for sensible meal planning and the comfort of cake, so much so that Fortune dubbed Betty Crocker “America's First Lady of Food,” second only to Eleanor Roosevelt in national popularity.
Fortune's claim that “the radio made Betty” is an invitation to contextualize Betty Crocker as a distinctly sonic brand emergent at a formative moment in U.S. radio history.2 The period of Betty's ascent—from her on-air debut in 1924 to the height of her acclaim in the late 1940s—reveals the centrality of radio in the making of a nationally recognizable brand. Historians have acknowledged Betty's popularity as illustrative of an embodied brand or live trademark, yet they have not addressed the specific form of live-ness crucial to Betty Crocker's success. She is indebted to the medium specificity of radio broadcasting and demonstrates the ether's sonic qualities from a different pitch. Following a history of Betty's development in a time of convergence for industrial modes in broadcasting, advertising, and consumer products, I argue that the case of a live trademark expands the nature of soundwork to consider two key qualities of disembodiment required to sustain a “living” trademark: voice and nonsonic maintenance. The particular qualities of vocal address that function so well in the service of a live trademark—sincerity, warmth, and neighborliness—were embedded in radio's social and cultural formation. Furthermore, Betty Crocker illuminates the place of women in early U.S. radio by demonstrating the plurality of sonic and nonsonic labor that define soundwork in early home service programming (fig. 2).
The shape of Betty Crocker radio emerges in corporate archival documents, listener mail, and popular histories. The General Mills Archives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, provided me with the following records: the stations that aired Betty Crocker programs; estimated quantities of listener mail that General Mills received each year; radio form responses to listener mail; radio form responses that addressed listener confusion about whether Betty Crocker was a real woman and those designed to maintain the illusion that she was real; format directives for the Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air; marketing goals; and transcripts of dozens of speeches given by General Mills home economists to women's clubs, men's clubs, cooking schools, and wholesale and retail buyers (these speeches often doubled as radio scripts). I also incorporate internally written timelines of the Betty Crocker brand history; the files of Samuel Gale (director of in-house advertising in the 1920s); and the oral history of Marjorie Child Husted, longtime director of the Home Service Department at General Mills and the major force behind the Betty Cocker persona.3 Fourteen Betty Crocker broadcasts, chosen at the archive's discretion, inform this analysis; the majority of the Betty Crocker corpus does not survive. While this sample does not represent the totality of Betty Crocker radio, an extensive review of scripts and interoffice memos confirm these episodes as symptomatic of the formal and generic boundaries of Betty Crocker radio from 1924 until 1953. Moreover, two excellent descriptive histories, Susan Marks's Finding Betty Crocker and James Gray's corporate history of General Mills, supplement Betty Crocker's chronology.4
Betty Crocker rarely has been considered as a form specific to radio or in the context of radio history and technology:
Betty Crocker has been of interest to gender scholars and food historians as a consumer brand embodied through signatures, portraits, and visual advertisements, through voice, and eventually as a physical presence on television.
Laura Shapiro and Susan Marks have foregrounded the brand's popularity at midcentury in relation to important histories—the domestic science movement and the trend of selling consumer products with characters (e.g., Ann Pillsbury, Aunt Jemima).5 In contextualizing the confusion surrounding Betty's realness, Shapiro uses the term live trademark to delineate the type of figurative work done by characters created by midcentury food and household goods companies. The term is more readily aligned with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's (USPTO) distinction between a “live” and a “dead” trademark, wherein dead denotes expired or abandoned applications for trademark protection.6 I follow Shapiro in this use of live trademark and suggest the context of radio brings new meaning to the term and calls attention to the specific qualities of radio that animated the Betty Crocker brand.
Betty Crocker was a brand embodied in live characterization, yet it was disembodiment that sustained her relationship with a consuming, listening public. If disembodiment, broadly defined, means to free or remove the body, what is freed or removed depends on the medium of communication. As Kate Lacey notes, although print was the first form of disembodiment, it was the telephone and phonograph that cultivated a wider-held sensibility, or “phonographic imagination,” that articulated disembodiment to sound in popular imagination.7 The novelty of something as intimate as voice dislocated from “time, place and body” combined with broadcasting's mass address and synchronous reception to foster a unique sense of liveness.8 Although scholars acknowledge how strange the traveling voice seemed to early radio listeners, it was as comforting as it was disconcerting in its cultivation of a sense of common experience among U.S. audiences.9 Thus disembodied voices emerged as part and parcel of radio's initial felt presence in daily life.10
The symbiotic relationship between a live trademark and broadcasting illuminates disembodiment's particular properties as radio soundwork. A sincere, hyperfeminine voice worked well as a fictional woman's delivery of advice for happy homemaking, successfully transitioning the brand from a signature on a form letter to the auditory world. Beyond that, Betty's authenticity was supported by the redirection of women's bodies into radio's nonsonic infrastructure of listener mail and scriptwriting. That is, in the case of Betty Crocker, disembodiment also rendered invisible the nonsonic labor that upheld the voice and what it sustained—the consistent, lifelike, yet elusive presence of a “living” consumer brand. With dozens of women converging at the site of one voice, the maintenance of Betty Crocker's persona enriched the meaning of disembodiment beyond sonic expression into the host of activities that supported women's home service programming on and off the air.
THE GOLD MEDAL STATION AND A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY
The broadcasting industry and the Betty Crocker brand were embryonic in the 1920s; gained listeners and consumers through syndication, networking, and mergers in the 1930s; rose to popularity during the Depression; ushered national audiences through World War II; peaked in the postwar years; and suffered from the advent of television at midcentury.11 Betty Crocker's materialization as a forerunner in home service programming is anchored in the temporal, social, and industrial nature of “golden-age” American radio, as well as in the converging business strategies of “service and sincerity” in the advertising and consumer goods industries as radio was finding its voice.12 The case of Betty Crocker draws attention to the plurality of gendered soundwork required to sustain a live trademark (i.e., how Betty “made” radio), but we must first acknowledge several key moments in radio's early history for their role in establishing the Betty Crocker brand (i.e., how the radio “made” Betty).
FROM SIGNATURE TO STATION
Betty Crocker originated in 1921, when Minneapolis flour company Washburn Crosby's in-house advertising department determined their customers would be best served by responses to inquires signed by a woman.13 The decision to anchor consumer correspondence with a female persona was no doubt influenced by the company's cognizance of women's authority in domestic science since the mid-nineteenth century and the very public rise of home economists.14 A woman's signature was also a compromise between competing modes of advertising in the early 20th century: the emotional intimacy of soft-sell appeals and the rational appeal of more established hard-sell strategies.15 Thus, Betty Crocker—“Crocker” after a company employee and “Betty” because it sounded “cheery, wholesome and folksy”—was born as a representative of Washburn Crosby in 1921.16
Betty remained a signature until Washburn Crosby purchased a Minnesota radio station in the fall of 1924. WLAG, “The Call of the North,” became WCCO, “The Gold Medal Station,” named in honor of their primary consumer product, Gold Medal Flour. Blanche Ingersoll, a home service department employee, voiced the first episode and would introduce the first on-air cooking school broadcasts in the fall of 1924 and winter of 1925:
Good morning. This is a very happy morning for me because at last I have an opportunity to really talk to you. To those of you who are my friends through correspondences, I wish to extend most cordial greetings and good wishes, and to those of you who are making the acquaintance of Betty Crocker for the first time, I bid you welcome to our circle. This hour—10:45 every morning—is yours, and I am here to be of service to you.17
Advertising department records suggest the first Betty Crocker on-air cooking school had 7,248 registrants, a number indicative of WCCO's head start in station development. In 1925, two years before a national radio network was established and during a period of open experimentation with content, WCCO was the largest station west of the Mississippi and was transmitting widely enough to reach a dispersed regional audience. Although the station would not earn the Federal Radio Commission's safeguarded and high-quality “clear channel” designation and its accompanying fifty-thousand-watt strength until 1932, Betty Crocker was already poised for a large listener base through signal strength and station development.18 This advantageous positioning coincided with a significant increase in potential listeners following a surge in home receiver purchases between 1925 and 1930.19
Two radio programs emerged within a year of Betty's 1924 debut on WCCO. The Betty Crocker Service Program was a “womanly talk” composed of cooking and homemaking advice and was an early example of the home service format that was fast becoming a staple genre of radio.20 Similarly, the Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air ran weekly, enrolled listeners in on-air lessons, and mailed grade reports.21 Notably, the on-air cooking school reduced Washburn Crosby's labor overhead and insured its brand on the airwaves by connecting cooking instruction and participation with radio engagement. For example, the company expressly discouraged the testing of recipes that hadn't yet been discussed on-air. This late-1920s enrollment letter accompanies a Macaroni Mousse recipe mailed out to listeners:
Dear Radio Friend:
You have been registered in the Gold Medal Flour Radio Cooking School. Enclosed find recipe cards and a report blank to be filled out, signed by your grocer and returned at the end of the course. The lessons will be more helpful if you do not try any recipe until after it has been discussed over the radio.
This shift toward a more exclusive transfer of knowledge over the airwaves helped establish the home service format as Washburn Crosby scaled back its onsite demos and cut the cross-country travel of its home economists in favor of incorporating such expertise into the broadcasts.23 Around the same time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced its own live trademark, Aunt Sammy, to host the popular household advice program Housekeeper's Chat.24
Listener participation in the Betty Crocker cooking school mushroomed at an opportune moment. By 1926, the airwaves were inundated with broadcasters competing for frequencies, signal strength, and on-air time. Intended to rectify this “intolerable chaos,” sweeping policy changes resulted in the Radio Act of 1927.25 This landmark moment gave the U.S. government—via the Federal Radio Commission (FRC)—control over licensing and content and subsequently mandated that programming serve “the public convenience, interest, and necessity.”26 Significant for Betty Crocker was how well its established programming met the “public interest” definition on which the FRC would eventually settle. Filtered through the Radio Act and its directive for reorganization, General Order 40, a definition of “general public service” emerged; it was a delicate balance of political and commercial interests. Stations were given licensing preference if they adhered to the General Order by providing content that was well-rounded and served the public broadly by proving itself popular among listeners.27
This standard of public service, however, was built on the intimate relationship between government and industry in the late 1920s, which was readily apparent in how service was articulated to commercialism as a way to ease advertising into radio.28 Importantly, while General Order 40 made clear that “selfish interest” programming would not be tolerated, the exception was commercial advertising, since the FRC could rationalize that boosting the economy was ultimately favorable for the public.29 Thus, at this crucial moment when regulation was narrowing the definition of radio vis-à-vis programming's new imperative to commercial service, Betty Crocker, as neither explicit advertising nor educational programming, was perfectly positioned at the intersection of industry and public good.
By the time that Washburn Crosby became General Mills in a profitable 1928 merger, the FRC had guaranteed WCCO a vast listener base by granting it clear channel status, and Betty Crocker's service-driven nature had been established in, for example, the promotion of rationing as a national defense practice:
Good morning, everybody. Earlier in the year I made a list of the special requests which my radio friends have mentioned in their letters. And I've been gradually trying to cover those different subjects. The first one was economy meals, and I've tried to give several inexpensive menus this year. … The next request was for inexpensive meat dishes, and these have also been covered in many of my talks.30
From its episode titles—such as “Betty Crocker Service Program” and “Our Nation's Rations”—to its scripts on stretching a meal to the tonal quality it established by starting broadcasts with a verse from Edward Pola's “Marching along Together,” Betty Crocker radio aligned itself with the public-good mandates of the Radio Act, the dime-stretching years of the depression, and the defensive home-front mentality of wartime.31 By 1945, the Office of War Information had enlisted Betty Crocker, as “the home economist women knew best and trusted,” to host a National Broadcasting Company (NBC) radio program, “Our Nation's Rations” on rationing.32 Transcending her inception as a signature, Betty Crocker was now endowed with the ideology of service. As Marjorie Husted stated in her oral history: “I would like to be remembered as a person who made Betty Crocker a symbol of service.”33
NETWORKING RADIO AND THE PROBLEM OF TOO MANY BETTYS
Archival records corroborate that at least thirteen women voiced Betty Crocker over her twenty-nine-year tenure, and this multiplicity was in part due to the changing nature of radio. Before networked radio—uniform distribution of the same program with the intention of simultaneous broadcasting—scripts were written in Minneapolis and distributed to individual stations in an exemplary form of early U.S. radio syndication. When Blanche Ingersoll went on-air as Betty in October 1924, her voice was broadcast locally from WCCO. By the time a second cooking school cohort commenced in the spring of 1925, “Buffalo Betty” had joined “Minneapolis Betty,” her scripts sent to a voice actress at WGR in Buffalo, New York.34 Between September 1925 and May 1926, the Betty Crocker Service Program—a thrice-weekly morning show on serving one's family and country—expanded to thirteen non-networked stations. Thus, eighteen months after Betty Crocker's radio debut, over a dozen women had performed her in a disembodied multiplicity of one character. Live trademarks and local syndication did not mix, and this dispersion of voices and stations marked the beginning of occasional confusion surrounding Betty's realness. The problem of too many Bettys is a jarring material demonstration of Alexander Russo's assertion that despite the articulation of uniformity and nationhood to radio, in reality early broadcasting was a patchworked web of uneven connections and differing voices.35
By October 1927, NBC—the first nationally networked commercial radio in the United States—was starting its second season, and Betty Crocker programming was included in its lineup. A few years later, in 1931, in CBS Broadcasting, Inc.'s bid to place itself in direct competition with NBC's now-powerful network, it bought a number of stations, including WCCO.36 Although Betty was no stranger to syndication, the folding of WCCO into a nationally networked web of radio significantly widened her reach. Stations airing Betty Crocker more than doubled between 1928 and 1930, and Betty Crocker programming was airing on at least fifty stations across the country by 1931.37 By the mid-1930s, Betty Crocker was well established as a radio-based home economist. In addition to CBS programming on WCCO, NBC debuted a nationally airing Gold Medal Hour in 1936, sponsored by General Mills and featuring fifteen minutes of Betty, five days a week.38
We should further consider the many voices of Betty in light of an important industrial debate: the negotiation of women's place in broadcasting. As Michele Hilmes writes, although early radio was relatively inclusive of women as amateur operators and program managers, social anxieties around gender roles in the 1920s limited opportunities in radio work to jobs considered more “natural” for women. As listeners became accustomed to vocal disembodiment, feminine voices were seen as both convenient (i.e., removing the woman's body) and unsettling (i.e., suggesting that women should be seen and not heard). That is, as radio grew increasingly commonplace in private homes, it made sense that feminine voices would pipe into living rooms. At the same time, questions were raised about what authority women should have in directing this valuable new medium.39
Memos in the General Mills archive certainly reflect the wide-reaching nature of this debate. As one internal description of the company's decision to put Betty Crocker on the air in 1924 notes: “There were doubting Thomases in the company who maintained that radio was a man's plaything.”40 As the airwaves were rationalized into daily schedules, a process that presumed daytime programming should address a more feminine, commercialized audience, women's voices were built into the fabric of the “talk” and home service programs that were believed to have no place in the more sophisticated evening hours.41 Home service programs, which covered cooking, product purchasing, and family life, had always been popular with listeners, but social and economic pressures to build a more formalized broadcasting infrastructure helped to temporally secure these programs as a daytime genre.
Throughout U.S. radio's golden age, much home service programming included fictional characters offering advice and expertise.42 Use of these characters aligns crucially with one result of the debate about women's place in broadcasting: the gradual shift from nonperforming to performing roles for women.43 By the 1930s, women were much more likely to be heard as performers of program-specific content (e.g., homemaking advice) rather than as announcers or emcees; in the case of Betty Crocker radio, it was a man, Win Elliot, who emceed while Betty connected to listeners with cooking instruction. Alongside Betty, the patriotic Aunt Sammy on the USDA's 1920s public service broadcast Housekeeper's Chat was an emergent model for home service programs. Like Betty, Aunt Sammy was locally cast and vocally (dis)embodied by many women.44 Several other food companies with radio shows had “corporate characters” or live trademarks, including Ann Pillsbury, played by Mary Ellis Ames on CBS from 1933 to 1936, and Josephine Gibson, who posed as a character for Heinz.45
Betty Crocker emerged at a moment when both radio and advertising recognized the value of “salesman in print” face-to-face models as well as the use of characters to offer home economics advice.46 While women radio performers were not face to face with listeners, the industrial shifts that relegated women to daytime programming, the dispensing of advice via fictional characters, and the social anxieties about gender elucidated by disembodiment converged at the site of the voice. Advertising had newly invested in expertise as a mode of product delivery. The live trademark, buttressed by broadcast, could embody the all-important bridge between expertise and trust through the voice.47 Yet the sincerity of women's voices was shored up not through disembodiment's catering to multiplicity, which helped Betty Crocker initially flourish, but instead through a context that guaranteed sincere vocal address. Housed within the now clearer generic and gendered boundaries of daytime home service programming and streamlined through network radio, the voice of Betty Crocker was poised to more authentically engage with a listening public.
WHO IS BETTY CROCKER? THE MAINTENANCE OF DISEMBODIMENT AS NONSONIC SOUNDWORK
A two-page advertisement for General Mills appeared in popular domestic magazines at midcentury: “Meet Betty Crocker, Home Economist … All 21 of Her!” The ad included a portrait frequently used as the visual representation of Betty Crocker, and below it is a greeting:
No wonder Betty Crocker of General Mills seems a very real person to so many millions of American women. No wonder they regard her as a friend and accept her as an authority on food, appliances, and homemaking. For Betty Crocker is as real as 21 women whose knowledge and warmth and broad experience combine to give Betty Crocker a unique personality all her own. These 21 home economists are Betty Crocker [emphasis original].48
The facing page offered twenty-one thumbnail photographs and professional sketches of General Mills staff. The ad's direct-address nature was stressed by Betty Crocker's signature, anchoring the bottom of the page in large cursive text.
Although companies had to constantly skirt accusations of public deception through the type of clarifying work done by the above “Meet Betty Crocker” ad, personified home economists were well integrated into popular culture as “living” figures.49 Laura Shapiro notes a typical instance of conflating real home economists with live trademarks: “When Irma Rombauer published her book on convenience foods, Streamlined Cooking (1939), she thanked by name all the home economists … but she made no effort to distinguish between, say, Janette Kelley (real) and Martha Logan (fictional).”50 The “strangely human gesture” of real home economists intermingling with fictional women in cookbooks and other consumer promotional materials not only established the prevalence of live trademarks during this time, but also suggested that the public's interest in their “realness” was varied.51
General Mills was attuned to questions of public deception, legality, and the maintenance of ambiguity. A widely circulated corporate history suggests that around 1936, a decade into Betty Crocker's personification, the company was increasingly preoccupied with the “proper limitations and safeguards in respect to this whole [Betty Crocker] program” in relation to trademarks, naming rights, and licensing.52 Minutes from a 1938 advertising policy committee meeting summarize the vitality of Betty's life-ness for the General Mills brand:
In respect to the use of BETTY CROCKER, a difference of opinion appeared, the Advertising Department taking the position that the effective use of BETTY CROCKER in advertising required personalizing BETTY CROCKER as a woman and the making of representations in accordance with this idea, and the Legal Department taking the position that the representation of BETTY CROCKER as a woman could not be sustained under the Federal Trade Commission Act relating to deceptive acts and practices and false advertisements and that the use of BETTY CROCKER should be confined to its use in personification of the BETTY CROCKER Home Economics Staff. The Advertising Department is of the opinion that such a limitation upon the use of BETTY CROCKER would largely destroy the effectiveness of this advertising use.53
Radio, the advertising department knew, extended well beyond the personification of the in-house home economics staff. Radio had cultivated Betty Crocker's live essence, but was also occasionally the source of confusion around her realness. General Mills was rarely, if ever, officially accused of public deception. The company took care to minimize the potential for confusion and never explicitly stated that Betty was real. All radio broadcasts, for example, ended with the identification of the woman performing Betty (e.g., “This is Zella Layne, speaking for Betty Crocker”).54 The fact that the nature of Betty's realness was always on the company's radar points less to issues of deception and more to how the maintenance of brand identity concentrated a labor force of real working women into a bodiless voice.
The form and function of hundreds of archived General Mills documents suggest that the work required to sustain Betty Crocker as a radio-ready live trademark necessitated an expansion of soundwork to include the negotiation and messy interplay of real and fictional bodies on which home service programming thrived. Betty Crocker broadcasts were supported by a plurality of labor that went into creating gendered sound as “authority personified”: on-air vocal personification, scriptwriting, letter answering, visual representation, and posing as the literal face of Betty.55 Most intellectual and institutional histories of radio implicitly include soundwork as a vast array of sonic and nonsonic labors, acknowledging on some level that decision-making, print-based work such as promotions and scriptwriting, sound effects, talent management, and the business of scheduling, flow, networking, and syndication uphold radio's crucial sensibility of liveness and sincerity. Yet the case of a live trademark forces explicit consideration of what else soundwork might expand to productively include—namely the inclusion of labor that is required to sustain the reasons how and why sound, specifically, works. The medium specificity on which Betty Crocker thrived elicits the question: Which labors make sound work, and work well? In the service of both General Mills and the listening public, radio was crucial in keeping an actual human body from interfering with a relationship between brand and sound. This separation required collapsing many bodies, jobs, and femininities into a soundwork that upheld one trusted voice.
A NATION'S RATION OF CHOCOLATE CAKE: VOCAL SINCERITY IN DEPRESSION AND WARTIME
When Blanche Ingersoll went live on-air in 1924, Betty Crocker became a sonic reality with no visual image to disrupt the fantasy. The idealized woman who had been invented in 1921 by a male-led advertising department—“the eternal and supreme housewife, all-wise, generous of time, advice, sympathy … this essential woman shar[ing] the proper interests of all creators of domestic comfort and harmony”—was given life.56 As Shapiro writes, “To hear her voice was to add a dimension to her persona that print could not provide, but for a listener to complete the picture required imagination—itself a good medium for someone who was, in fact, imaginary.”57 The convenience of disembodiment that radio provided efficiently mapped the expectations of good domestic science onto a feminine voice. As directives in internal memos suggest, and the broadcasts' auditory consistencies demonstrate, the women who spoke for Betty had to relay the specific qualities of voice that Washburn Crosby, soon to be General Mills, felt would fortify a trademark's authenticity: kind, matter-of-fact, young but not too young, feminine, good-humored, professional, and constantly demonstrating expertise through detailed instruction.
General Mills was intent on using the right voice. Although Marjorie Husted and Betty Buchholz would together voice the majority of broadcasts (Buchholz performed as Betty for over a decade), not all women who personified Betty were considered suitable for the job.58 In her biography, Husted discusses how some voices were rejected by the advertising department. For example, records suggest that focus-group and internal testing with actress and cosmetics spokeswoman Edna Wallace Hopper found her “fast, staccato, excited, high pressure style” to be unfavorable for a persona who had begun with the adjectives of “homey,” “cozy,” and “cheerful.”59 A 1934 NBC press release celebrating the tenth anniversary of Betty Crocker broadcasts speaks to the particular type of trust General Mills hoped her voice had established with three million listeners: “Women immediately recognized that here was someone who talked to them in their own language—a neighborly voice giving helpful, neighborly advice.”60 In this context, neighborly advice meant a tonal quality that crafted relatability; that is, reports suggest Betty did best when listeners had a sense that Betty's problems were their problems.
The qualities of voice that General Mills was intent on cultivating mirror the ways that vocal address supports what Paddy Scannell calls the care-structure of broadcasting. If sincerity is an expectation of mundane, interpersonal interaction and radio was a public medium with a mass address, it is broadcasting's specific ability, Scannell asserts, to pipe one voice directly into many private living rooms that relieves the paradox of sincerity and performativity.61 As the linchpin of this “for-anyone-as-someone” structure, the onus of authenticity is placed on vocal address.62 The evolution of the “natural style” in 1930s radio bridges public and private by transitioning voices away from performative projection and toward the lower, more intimate tones typical among neighbors or friends.63 Around the same time, roles for women's voices were narrowing into submissive and domesticating narratives.64 Moreover, advertising's anxiety about invading the private space of the home was allayed by the articulation of expertise, warmth, and personal address.65 Voice was further changed in negotiating the tensions between rural listeners and urban broadcasters, one result of which was the cultivation of an open-minded, neighborly address.66 In sum, the quality and character of sound being developed in nearly all genres of 1930s radio—documentary, crime drama, news, agriculture, and home service—converged and overlapped around a disembodied voice that fostered intimacy, sincerity, authority, and warmth.
General Mills' crafting of a neighborly voice accompanied rapid changes to broadcasting and presented Betty Crocker with the challenge of maintaining vocal consistency across networks and time zones. An archived form letter response labeled “Not Pleased with the Way We Announce ‘Betty Crocker’” indicates how the company addressed listeners' dissatisfaction:
I am sorry to hear that you are disappointed in having the broadcaster from New York introduced as Miss Crocker. You see she really has to become the Betty Crocker personality to the audience through her voice, as we have no other way of reaching the listeners. […] Many women were apparently disappointed at the change of voice at first, but after they became accustomed to the new Betty Crocker they liked her very well.67
Despite the company's efforts to clarify on behalf of Betty, radio had altered the act of listening as an everyday experience that reconfigured intimate address as uniformly received, making it difficult for audiences to negotiate the realness of a live trademark with the inconsistency of multiple voices.68
Betty's vocal sincerity was intimately bound to her work around food and wartime. The last few seconds of a 1940s “Wedding Cake” episode of the Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air give some indication of how cake was simultaneously essential and utterly banal:
You know all this cake talk is givin' me ideas. I'm gonna ask my wife, Rita, to make me a cake tonight.
A Betty Crocker one-egg cake made with Softasilk cake flour. Boy, it's moist and tender and good. I think I'd like it iced with speedy Junket Fudge and Frosting Mix, too, that's good stuff.
Mmmhmm, I think you're going to enjoy the cake you're going to have for dinner tonight.69
Housewives baked less in the depression and wartime economies, and cake was matchless as a frugal and comforting symbol of home.72 Quite simply, cake was an easy fantasy of excess in a period of severe material restriction. A chocolate cake prompted a type of visionary listening that fortified an imagined reality in the same way that fans listening to sports “envision the geometry of a ballpark and feel they actually see the arcing trajectory of a home run.”73 Archived speeches and scripts demonstrate General Mills' belief that cake packaged escapism, security, and happiness on the home front for families anxious about money or war. Even after cake mixes were introduced, such as the one using Softasilk (mentioned in the excerpt above), General Mills shifted its rhetoric so that the step of adding eggs simulated baking in a way that didn't “cheapen” the “triumph of love and skill” associated with preparing cakes for others.74 Most important, cake served as an important flashpoint through which the natural style of vocal sincerity was incorporated into Betty Crocker broadcasts, a mode of address Neil Verma terms “positional intimacy.” The sympathy-empathy structure Verma observes in 1930s documentary realism is easily applied to the way that Betty's scriptwriters used cake.75 Women at home could sympathize with the “nearness” of Betty Crocker: they were in this together, in support and mutual empathy for the “further-off” characters of men at work and men on the front lines.
LETTER WRITING AND LISTENER MAIL
Nearly every broadcast prior to 1950 asks listeners to write to Betty Crocker with homemaking questions, recipe requests, or ideas for future programming. The records of mail volume at General Mills suggest the home service department received five thousand letters a day at its peak.76 Indeed, stations inundated with listener mail are a well-documented occurrence in golden-age radio, although office staffs were largely ill equipped to handle the volume.77 The cooking school broadcasts helped to establish Betty as a national necessity, both in their eliciting of mail and in their extension of public relations in printed promotional material, demonstrated by a 1942 article in the Modern Millwheel titled “I Owe It All to Betty Crocker,' Says Iowa Woman.” The article interviews Mrs. A. T. Ellinger, a cooking school graduate, and includes reprinted recipes from the broadcasts.78 In many newspapers that printed Betty Crocker recipes, such as the “Home Defense Supper” (i.e., ham loaf and cherry sauce), the radio cooking school is explicitly aligned with food preservation as a national defense initiative.
The relationship Betty Crocker cultivated with a listening audience—the active encouragement of participation via letter writing—was not exclusive to the service program or cooking school, but instead was a unique foundation of radio. As Hilmes points out, drawing from Lynn Spigel's work, radio receivers “functioned even better than ‘reality,’ providing experiences that listeners could make their own, respond to emotionally, frequently feeling enough of a direct personal connection that a reciprocal communication followed.”79 Up-and-coming programs were eager to respond to listener requests and, indicative of broadcasting's care structure of sincerity in vocal address, listeners of golden-age radio responded out of a true sense of satisfied personal interaction.80 A participatory culture of letter writing and of tuning in, cooking, and reciprocating communication with Betty Crocker became a feedback loop of cultural activities circuited through the radio. This cycle converged with early radio's use of skills or advice-based programming as a means to fill airtime by depending on the more historically established mode of public address as a space for relaying expertise. Thus, dependent on the labor of an overworked staff of home economists, listener mail was the back-end support that sustained this combination of expertise and participation, forging the generic style of Betty Crocker radio and the golden-age home-service format. Thanks to its early start in the 1920s, by 1937 Betty's on-air school had nearly one hundred thousand enrolled students.81
Betty Crocker was a product of a branded consumer food manufacturer, but it was her popularity on radio that increased off-air labor for women. In the home service department, a team of home economists was charged with keeping up with listener mail, scripts, and form responses. For General Mills, wartime food scarcity meant increased production and tight turnaround times on new cookbooks with appropriate recipes that would align with on-air scripts. For example, its 1943 booklet on rationing, “Your Share,” was distributed to grocers to be handed out with purchases. A historical timeline written by a General Mills employee notes that America's confidence in Betty Crocker to guide home emergency food rationing meant “hours and hours of work by Mrs. Husted and staff in preparing a stream-lined cook book.”82 The release of new materials prompted a wave of public relations and newspaper and magazine articles written “by Betty Crocker,” with quotes from housewives who referred to her as a real person.83 Additionally, although travel and in-person cooking schools had been reduced since the advent of radio, public appearances were still required of staff home economists.
Thus, while radio mostly relieved the problem of presenting Betty Crocker in a physical body and supported an elusive relationship with audiences, the imperative to maintain the brand in other areas prompted embodied publicity as on-staff home economists were forced to occasionally pose as Betty. In the interwar years and even through midcentury, popular belief in Betty's realness was mixed, and many listeners requested face-to-face meetings, proffered marriage proposals, and even showed up at the General Mills headquarters.84 In these instances of unannounced arrival, Marjorie Husted or other female employees would pose as Betty Crocker while also trying to clarify that they weren't actually Betty Crocker. Husted recalls this negotiation in her biography: “I never, you know, I never said I'm Betty Crocker … but women weren't satisfied if they weren't introduced to Betty Crocker.”85
Radio allowed Betty to remain productively elusive even after her identity had been questioned. Part of the confusion stemmed from Betty Crocker's circulation in portraits and visual advertisements that were composite images of General Mills' actual home economists. When listeners did inquire about the nature of Betty's livelihood, a number of form responses were scripted in order to uphold Betty's image without having to present her to the public as an actual woman.86 Although dozens of real women stood behind the early years of the Betty Crocker brand—from the instrumental Husted to secretary Florence Lindberg, who gave her signature and was forgotten—radio fostered the concentration of this broad but complicated labor force into the gendered soundwork of a streamlined voice. Betty Crocker's legacy as a live trademark and the brand's presence in the contemporary landscape of food can be largely attributed to radio's unique ability to sustain her persona for such an extended period of time.
THE MAINTENANCE OF A “WARM AND HUMAN PERSONALITY” IN A COLORFUL NEW MEDIUM
An undated General Mills corporate history outlines 1950 to 1954 as a readjustment period for the company in light of radio's new competition with television: “Radio has always been the central core of the Betty Crocker personality and program. For economic reasons … television could not directly take the place of radio in the personalized Betty Crocker service program.”87 Just as Betty Crocker and radio experienced similar golden ages, they also experienced parallel reconfigurations. A home service department progress report from November 1950, “What Is Happening To Betty Crocker?” expresses concern about Betty's waning popularity, particularly with new homemakers under thirty-five:
How much of this [decline in popularity] is Betty Crocker's doing? She can't do much of it in printed ads, we know. Here she is chiefly a symbol. […] But in radio and television she is a real person. And here is where we have the greatest opportunity to build the personality of Betty Crocker as the First Lady of Food. So let's consider what radio has been doing. […] Television has still to show what it can do. But one thing is for sure. It should be even more generous with service than radio. For here is where Betty Crocker must pass her greatest test. She will be not only heard, but seen. And she must not let women down.88
Betty Crocker appeared in print advertisements throughout the 1930s and 1940s, but General Mills records demonstrate consistent internal recognition that her national reach was always over the ether. An undated directive from the early 1930s sent to stations broadcasting Betty Crocker is explicit: “No pictures of Betty Crocker are to be published.”89 While visuals of Betty Crocker certainly circulated and indeed were eventually an express part of General Mills' marketing campaigns, the ubiquity of Betty Crocker's constructed persona and the style of her broadcasts adhered to the medium specificity of radio as well as to its chronology. Even color television's “appetite appeal”—the ostensible “value added” of visualizing products as opposed to only hearing about them—seemed to elude the neighborly offering of chocolate cake.90 Despite market research that baldly stated the imperative of “constant and consistent maintenance of a singular sympathetic personality that has kept Betty Crocker human and alive,” the collective labor that contributed to the success of Betty Crocker soundwork did not reinforce televisuality the way it had funneled into a bodiless voice.91
A few years after the Fortune article made the claim that “the radio made Betty,” Betty Crocker made her debut on TV. Adelaide Hawley played Betty Crocker on a number of fifteen- and thirty-minute programs between 1950 and 1958. She also starred in commercial spots and appeared as a guest on variety shows, but, as Susan Marks summarizes, “Betty's television shows never came close to equaling her radio programs, either commercially or financially.” Around the same time, General Mills commissioned a design firm to create “visual shorthand” for the Betty Crocker brand.92 The result was the red spoon logo that anchors associations with Betty Crocker today, most prominently on cake mix boxes and cookbooks. Furthermore, beginning in 1950, General Mills adopted a policy to discourage mail from listeners and fans in an effort to combat its volume and further streamline responses.93
Although no causal connection is evidenced in the archives, these events certainly indicate a transition, if not a decline, in the life of the Betty Crocker brand, one that eventually reduced Betty's image to logos on consumer packaging. It is perhaps a stretch to insist that Betty Crocker's tenure as a woman incarnate was so intimately tied to radio that she could no longer exist as a live trademark, but it does raise the question of why the labor that undergirded Betty's radio success adjusted so poorly to a visual medium. The soundwork that maintained her highlights negotiations among a bodiless voice, an embodied brand, and physical, laboring bodies. The multiple ways radio disembodied and reembodied a live trademark were built not only on expectations of voice in the context of broadcasting's early years, but also on the nonsonic maintenance of scriptwriting, letter answering, and negotiating when a brand should be articulated as a physical body and when it should not. The sonic communication upheld in the collective labor of dozens of Betty Crockers not only animated a brand, but also helped to define the genre of home service programming as one built on the plurality of soundwork when it expands beyond sound.
This statement acknowledges that all radio broadcasts and print materials sourced from the General Mills Archives and used to inform this essay are owned by and courtesy of General Mills Marketing, Inc.