Betty Crocker Unveiled

"Do people feel duped?" Bowers wondered.

"I don't know if they're aware of all the other home economists and corporate figures that were out there at the time that were all claiming to be real," Marks answered. "But yeah, I do think some people feel a little duped by General Mills and Betty Crocker."

She could have been talking about one man at the book signing, who admitted. "I was surprised and felt a little taken advantage of, maybe. And something was cheapened a little bit."

In fact, Bowers notes, "Betty wasn't born to deceive. She was an accident, and as it turns out, a happy one."

Marks explains that, "The Washburn Crosby Company ran an ad in the back of the Saturday Evening Post for their gold medal flour. And it was a puzzle, like a picture puzzle that you put together."

If you solved the puzzle, you could win a pin cushion in the shape of a sack of gold medal flour.

"It was an intoxicating lure," Marks points out, "because 30,000 people sent puzzles back expecting to get this little pin cushion. But what surprised the company was the couple hundred letters that also arrived asking for cooking and baking advice."

Sam Gale, the company advertising director, decided to answer those letters. He even sent along recipes from the company's home economists. But when it came time to sign the letters, "He felt sorta strange about it," Marks says. "He 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 the idea of Betty Crocker, a woman, who would answer this mail and be a friend to the homemaker."

Gale decided the name Betty sounded wholesome and cheery. The surname Crocker was in honor of William Crocker, a recently retired company director.

"Why was this such a necessary thing? Bowers wanted to know. "I mean, even before Betty became an icon, people were already writing letters, needing help, needing suggestions."

"Well," Marks says, "you hit on something really big: There was a need. And this need came from women leaving their rural roots, coming to urban centers, moving away from their mothers. …and so they had new appliances, new technology had changed things. So instead of wood burning and coal burning stoves, they had electric and gas ranges. And food was starting to be processed."

Women had become strangers in their own, newly-modern kitchens, Bowers says. They had questions, and once "Betty" started answering them, thousands more letters poured in.

"I love this one," Marks told Bowers as they poured through letters together. "It's one of my favorites from 1929: '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?'"

Men wrote in, too, for a different kind of help, thinking "Betty was a dating service," Marks says.

"In fact in the height of Betty Crocker's popularity," Marks adds, "she got anywhere between 4,000 and 5,000 letters per day. The only known amount of mail that's more than that would be the amount that the Roosevelts got during the war. And that was about 7,000 a day."

Every single letter got answered. "Betty" had help, a team of highly-skilled home economists who tested recipes first-hand in the Betty Cocker kitchens, and even traveled around the country, spreading Betty's gospel: "You can do it, and I can help."

But it was radio that made Betty Crocker a star, Bowers says.

"It's time for Betty Crocker and here she is, America's first lady of food, your Betty Crocker, brought to you by General Mills," the announcer would say.