Sunday, October 12, 2014

How "Aunt Jemima" Pancake & Syrup Products Got That Name (The 19th century song "Old Aunt Jemima")

Edited by Azizi Powell

Latest revision- April 15, 2021

This pancocojams post provides information about how the Aunt Jemima pancake and syrup products got that name.

This post also provides text examples of the 19th century American song "Old Aunt Jemima".

The content of this post is presented for folkloric and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners

Thanks to all those who collected these songs. Thanks also to all who are quoted in this page.
Click for the closely related pancocojams post entitled 

CONTENT UPDATE (April 15, 2021)
"Aunt Jemima is a brand of pancake mix, syrup, and other breakfast foods. The pancake mix was developed in 1888–1889 by the Pearl Milling Company and advertised as the first ready-mix.[1][2] The Aunt Jemima character is based on the enslaved "Mammy" archetype.[3][4] The "Aunt Jemima Doctrine" in US trademark law originates in a 1915 case between the pancake mix company and an unrelated seller of pancake syrup. The brand has been owned by the Quaker Oats Company since 1926.[2]

Nancy Green portrayed Aunt Jemima at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, one of the first Black corporate models in the United States.[1] Subsequent advertising agencies hired dozens of actors to perform the role as the first organized sales promotion campaign.[5]

Since its debut, the character has been criticized as an example of exploited African American women. "Aunt Jemima" is sometimes used as a female version of the derogatory epithet "Uncle Tom" or "Rastus". In June 2020, Quaker Oats announced that the Aunt Jemima brand would be retired "to make progress toward racial equality."[6] They subsequently announced in February 2021 that the line will be re-branded in June 2021 as Pearl Milling Company after the original owners of the pancake mix.[7]
This is the end of this April 15, 2021 content update.

The female name "Jemima" means "dove" in Hebrew and "little dove" in Arabic.

Also, "Jemimah" was the name of the first daughter of  Job (in the Holy Bible):
Job 42:14-15 New International Version (NIV)

"The first daughter he named Jemimah, the second Keziah and the third Keren-Happuch. 15 Nowhere in all the land were there found women as beautiful as Job’s daughters, and their father granted them an inheritance along with their brothers".

In the 19th century the title "Aunt" was used in the United States for elderly Black women in place of the title "Mrs." since "Mrs" was reserved for White women only.

"Old Aunt Jemima" was a popular American song composed by African American comedian, songwriter and minstrel show performer Billy Kersands (c. 1842–1915). The Old Aunt Jemima song was the inspiration for the Aunt Jemima brand of pancakes, as well as several characters in film, television and on radio named "Aunt Jemima".

Kersands wrote his first version of "Old Aunt Jemima" in 1875. It was to become Kersands' most popular song. Robert Toll claimed that Kersands had performed this song over 2000 times by 1877.[1] There were at least 3 different sets of "Old Aunt Jemima" lyrics by 1889.[2]

Often "Old Aunt Jemima" would be sung while a man in drag playing the part of Aunt Jemima performed on stage. It was not uncommon for the Aunt Jemima character to be played by a white man in blackface.[2][3]

Other minstrels incorporated Aunt Jemima into their acts, so Aunt Jemima became a common figure in minstrelsy. Other songs about Aunt Jemima were composed, such as "Aunt Jemima Song" and "Aunt Jemima's Picnic Day".[2]

..."Billy Kersands was the most popular minstrel star and the highest paid black entertainer of the era, earning as much as one hundred dollars a week---a lot of money in the 1870s and 1880s. Kersands was a comedian who enjoyed entertaining the public. But his real forte was dancing. He was credited as being the first dancer to introduce the "soft-shoe" dance, and the "buck and wing." He was also instrumental in introducing the African-American "clog-dance."

Perhaps the most enduring “mammy” icon is Aunt Jemima. Billy Kersands, a black minstrel performer, wrote the song “Aunt Jemima” for a white minstrel artist in 1875. The song was performed in 1889 with a man named Chris Rutt in the audience. Rutt, seeing an opportunity for commercializing the Aunt Jemima character, went on to trademark the name and sold it to The Davis Company. Davis eventually hired a former enslaved woman named Nancy Green to sell their company’s pancakes at the Chicago Exposition in 1893. The "mammy" icon of Aunt Jemima has lived far beyond the minstrel song.

"He began entertaining in the South, probably before the Civil War and remained a working entertainer for more than 60 years, most of them spent in minstrelsy.

Kersands' popularity with Southern black audiences was unsurpassed, and he demonstrated that a nineteenth-century black entertainer could become rich and famous...

So successful was Billy that he and [his wife] Louise [toured for their minstrel company's performances] throughout the heartland of the USA in their private railway car, and they and their company were booked in Europe during much of the 1907-09 period, which included a command performance for Queen Victoria."...

These examples are presented in chronological order based on the example's collection or original publication.

Example #1:

[Note this page indicates that Billy Kersands composed "Aunt Jemina" as early as 1875. However, this may not be the earliest version of that song.]

One version of "Old Aunt Jemima" began with a stanza expressing dissatisfaction with the dullness of worship services in white churches, such as a complaint about the length of the prayers. The song ended with the following two stanzas:

The monkey dressed in soldier clothes,
Old Aunt Jemima, etc.
Went out in the woods for to drill some crows,
Old etc.
The jay bird hung on a swinging limb.
Old etc.
I up with a stone and hit him on the shin.
Old etc.

Oh, Carline, oh, Carline,
Can't you dance the bee line
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!

The bullfrog married the tadpole's sister,
Old etc.
He smacked his lips and then he kissed her,
Old etc.
She says if you love me as I love you,
Old etc.
No knife can cut out love in two.
Old etc.

Some variants of the song substituted "pea-vine" for "bee line". Another version included the verse:

My old missus promise me,
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
When she died she-d set me free,
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
She lived so long her head got bald,
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
She swore she would not die at all,
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh![2]

Sterling Stuckey [cultural historian and author of the 1988 book Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America] maintains that Kersands did not write all of these lyrics, but adapted many of them from "slave songs" (such as field hollers and work songs).[2]"
Here's a comment (from the Mudcat folk music forum discussion thread whose link is given below) about the "My old massa promised me/when I die, he'll set me free" verse:
"The 'promised me' verse in various forms appears in minstrel songs as early as 1845.
Massa and misse promised me
When they died they'd set me free
Massa and misse dead and gone
Here's old Sambo hillin' up corn."

Example #2:
From "Lyr Add: Old Aunt Jemima & Aunt Jemima's Plaster" [hereafter known as Mudcat: Aunt Jemima"], posted by Q, 10 Apr 10 - 04:30 PM

(Words and music James Grace, 1876)

I went to de church de other night,
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
To hear de colored folks sing and pray,
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
Old Pomp got tight, and Dinah walk along,
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
And made old Gumbo sing a song,
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!

Car'line, Car'line, can't you dance de peavine,
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!

Dar was a bullfrog dressed in soldier clothes
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
He went out to drill dem crows,
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
But de bullfrog he made such a mighty splutter,
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
Dat I up wid my foot and kicked him in de water,
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
I carried a hen coop on my knee,
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
I thought I heard a chicken sneeze,
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
'Twas nothing but a rooster saying his prayers,
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!
He gave out a hymn, such a getting up stairs,
Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!

Many verses, often floaters, linked by 'Old Aunt Jemima, oh! oh! oh!, sung by various minstrel groups.

Verses above by James Grace, for banlo [sic] accompaniment by George C. Dobson.
Sheet music 1876, John F. Perry & Co., Boston.
American Memory."
Notice that although documentation now credits the first version of this minstrel song to African American entertainer Billy Kersands, various White men, inluding James Grace, copyrighted versions of that song.

Example #3
From Thomas W. Talley [editor], Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise And Otherwise, originally published in 1922, The Project Gutenberg EBook of Talley's Negro Folk Rhymes [p. 107]

OLE Aunt Jemima grow so tall,
Dat she couldn' see de groun'.
She stumped her toe, an' down she fell
From de Blackwoods clean to town.

W'en Aunt Jemima git in town,
An' see dem "tony" ways,
She natchully faint an' back she fell
To de Backwoods whar she stays.
This version documents the disdain that African Americans who lived in the city had for African Americans who lived in the country. "Tony" here means "citified", "snobbish", and "snotty".

Similar attitudes of disdain for rural Americans is reflected in White depictions of "hillbillies". Click for the pancocojams post "The Shared Steroptypes For Hillbillies & African Americans".

Example #4
From Mudcat: Aunt Jemima, posted by Joe Offer, 14 Apr 10 - 03:51 AM

Margaret MacArthur sang it to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy."


Aunt Jemina climb a tree
She had a stick to boost her,
There she sat a-shelling corn
For our old bob tailed rooster.

Humpty Doodle skiddlebing
Humpty Doodle Daddy,
Humpty Doodle skiddlebing
Wax for Torttle-addy

Corn cobs will twist your hair
Cart wheels around you,
Fiery dragons scare you off
And mortar pestles pound you.

Aunt Jemima's dead and gone
It's hard to tell the story,
They put the plaster on her back
And threw her up to glory.

Sheepskin, bees wax
Makes the sticky plaster,
The more we try to pull it off,
The harder it sticks the faster.

Tune: Yankee Doodle Dandy
From the singing of Mrs. Austin Nichols, Guilford, Vermont; verses three and four from Jean Chase, Putney, Vermont.

Album notes from Folksongs of Vermont, a Folkways LP by Margaret MacArthur.
Notice that this example includes a verse of the "Aunt Jemima's Plaster" song.

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  1. I looked in The Times (of course) for the earliest English reference to Aunt Jemima. The name itself it seems was fairly upper-class at first, and not associated with Americans, let alone African Americans. Then in a farce put on in 1858,' Yankee Courtship', were two American characters called Jemima - one actually 'Aunt Jemima', but both were white. There's no association with African Americans till 1932, and then only because a black American singer topping the bill at a London theatre appeared under the name. I think this may have been Edith Wilson.

    1. Thanks for that info slam2011.

      Of courseee ;o) "The Times" that you refer to is the London Times. (Because I'm in the USA, when I read the words "The Times", I automatically think of the New York Times.)

      There's nothing inherently "wrong" with that name "Jemima". It's a nice three female name that can easily rhyme with many words. But without a doubt that name is largely ruined for use in the USA. That probably has nothing to do with the Aunt Jemima songs which are largely forgotten, but certainly has a lot to do with the Aunt Jemima pancake brand and their marketing actions and the negative characterizations associated with "Aunt Jemima/"Uncle Tom".

  2. As a result of this Mudcat folk music thread I became aware of the "Oh Jemima" children's rhymes. I've never heard of them before this. (I didn't come across them in my years of directly collecting playground rhymes mostly from African Americans in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area.)

    There's apparently a large number of those "Oh Jemima" rhymes. One of those verses is
    "Oh Jemima look at your uncle Jim,
    he's in the bathtub learning how to swim
    First he does the backstroke then he does the side
    Now he's in the sea swimming against the tide!"

    I also found this example of another children's rhyme on that same Mudcat site, although not on that page:
    "Jump-rope Rhymes: A Dictionary
    edited by Roger D. Abrahams

    Mima, Mima
    Black Jemima
    Lost a child
    And couldn’t find her
    Brother found her in the dell.
    Now she treats her very well.

    Echoes of Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater, See Opie, DICTIONARY, 346-347
    Ainsworth, WF, 20 (1961), 181 [Maine]"
    I know the "Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater" rhyme from my childhood in New Jersey in the 1950s. But I didn't know that Mima Mima variant.
    And "Jemima" is the name of the little girl in the 19th century Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem
    There was a little girl” (who had a little curl/right in the middle of her forehead")

    The verse with the name "Jemima" is
    "Her mother heard the noise,
    And she thought it was the boys
    A-playing at a combat in the attic;
    But when she climbed the stair,
    And found Jemima there,
    She took and she did spank her most emphatic."

    Talk about fixed gender roles, and parents spanking their children! smh


  3. When I was a child my mom nicknamed me Jemima bc of Job 42:14-15... notwithstanding her noble intentions everybody else only knew about the Aunt Jemima on the pancake box...when I was about 7, I politely but sternly told her I would not answer to that name anymore ... Kinda wished I hadn't done that now that I more fully appreciate Job 42:14-15....

    Thanks for sharing this info Azizi Powell....

    1. Jemimah,

      Thanks for your comment. It's too bad that the name Jemima is seen so negatively in the USA.

      Here's that Job 42:14-15 Bible verse:

      Job 42:14-15 New International Version (NIV)

      "14 The first daughter he named Jemimah, the second Keziah and the third Keren-Happuch. 15 Nowhere in all the land were there found women as beautiful as Job’s daughters, and their father granted them an inheritance along with their brothers."
      As somewhat of an aside, the female name "Karen" comes from the name Keren-Happuch. And, my theory is that the female name "Keshia" with its many variants such as "LaKeshia" comes from the female name Keziah, even though those contemporary (mostly African American given) names are pronounced differently than the Biblical name:
      "Keshia" and its many variant spellings and with the added "La" or "My" is pronounced KEY-shah.

      Here's information about how "Keziah" is pronounced (I didn't know this information before I "googled" it).

      "Pronunciation: ka-zy-ah KEZIAH rhymes with DESIRE or MARIAH (as in MARIAH CAREY)

      Gender: Female
      Origin: Hebrew
      Meaning: Cassia - fragrance (Job 42:14)

      Additional Information: Keziah rhymes with DESIRE. Keziah was one of Job's 3 beautiful daughters who were given inheritances along with their 7 brothers."


      Best wishes!

  4. I re-published this post on June 17, 2020 with very little changes t as a result of this news that was released on June 17, 2020):'s%20(,shows%20from%20the%2019th%20century.

    (Reuters) - PepsiCo Inc’s (PepsiCO) Aunt Jemima pancake mix will change its name and image in an effort by the brand to distance itself from racial stereotypes, NBC News reported on Wednesday.
    The logo of the brand features an African American woman named after a character from minstrel shows from the 19th century.
    "We recognize Aunt Jemima's origins are based on a racial stereotype," a statement from Quaker Foods North America, the PepsiCo unit that owns Aunt Jemima, said, according to NBC."
    Click for tweets about the logo "Aunt Jemima" and the history of that logo.