Skip to main content Accessibility help

Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book: The Aesthetics of American Food in the 1950s

  • Karal Ann Marling


Since its publication in 1950, Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book has Oproven a perennial favorite, the gift of choice at bridal showers, especially in the deluxe, ring-bound edition that once sold for a mere $3.95 (or $3 with premium coupons from cake-mix boxes). Second on the all-time culinary bestsellers' list-where it noses out The Joy of Cooking (1931) and The I Hate to Cook Book (1960) - the familiar red-and-white volume with the old-timey, Early American designs on the cover broke records that first year when it outsold Kon-Tiki, The Lonely Crowd, and Hubbard Cobb's Your Dream Home. In the spring of 1951, delighted General Mills executives presented the millionth copy to the American Mother of the Year and the distributer, McGraw-Hill, shipped another 950,000 units to retailers. A year later, with the book in its seventh printing, sales had passed the two million mark and there was no end in sight.



Hide All


1. Coyle, Patrick L. Jr., Cooks' Books: An Affectionate Guide to the Literature of Food and Cooking (New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985), p. 25; ad, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, 08 27, 1950, sec. W, p. 3; “Betty Crocker Honors Mother of the Year,” General Mills Horizons, 06 1951, p. 12; Gordon, Lois and Gordon, Alan, American Chronicle: Six Decades in American Life, 1920–1980 (New York: Atheneum, 1987), p. 294; “Project of the Year,” General Mills Annual Report, 06 1, 1950–May 31, 1951, p. 7; and “Betty Crocker,” General Mills Annual Report, 06 1, 1952–May 31, 1953, p. 12.

2. Wickland, John, “Huge Sale Seen for Cook Book,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, 09 2, 1950, p. 15.

3. “How Betty Crocker Wrote the Picture Cook Book,” promotional reprint from Journal of Home Economics (12 1956), unpaginated, in General Mills Archive, Betty Crocker Food and Publications Center, Minneapolis, Minn, (hereafter, GMA); tear sheet for ad (ca. 1952), “Why it took 10 years to serve this dish,” GMA; and “Cook Book Offers 1,000 Photographs,” New York Times, 09 7, 1950, sec. L, p. 41.

4. Gram, Margaret A., “Seasoned with Glamour,” Saturday Review of Literature 34 (03 10, 1951): 48.

5. Wood, Morrison, “How to Cook the Way Mother Used to Do,” Chicago Sunday Tribune, 09 10, 1950, sec. 4, p. 6.

6. Block, Jean Lipman, “The Secret Life of Betty Crocker,” Woman's Home Companion 81 (12 1954): 22, 78, 80; “General Mills of Minneapolis,” Fortune 31 (04 1945): 118; “The Story of Betty Crocker,” promotional leaflet (ca. 1986), GMA; and Simon, Jane, “Mix Trust, Blend Ease, Cook till Sales are High,” Compass Readings [Northwest Airlines] 21 (11 1990): 3538.

7. Sicherman, Al, “… And Ladies of the Club Sandwich,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 07 10, 1991, sec. T, p. 1.

8. See, for example, the variety of such spokeswomen in a single issue of Good Housekeeping 134 (04 1952): 29, 157, 207, 220, etc.

9. Gray, James, Business Without Boundary: The Story of General Mills (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1954), p. 178.

10. “General Mills of Minneapolis,” p. 118.

11. The Betty Crocker recipe ad series appeared in several magazines: see, for example, Better Homes and Gardens 28 (09 1949–April 1950). For the 1950 Gift Box, see General Mills Horizons, 11 1950, p. 12.

12. For a summary of the company's television sponsorships, see General Mills Horizons, 11 1951, p. 4. Adelaide Hawley went before the cameras for the first time on November 3, 1951.

13. Betty Crocker … 1921–1954 (Minneapolis, Minn.: General Mills [1960?]), pp. 1112.

14. Dichter, Ernest, The Strategy of Desire (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960), p. 230.

15. Packard, Vance, The Hidden Persuaders (New York: David McKay, 1957), p. 78; and Dichter, Ernest, Handbook of Consumer Motivations: The Psychology of the World of Objects (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), pp. 14, 21, 37.

16. Betty Crocker19211954, p. 13.

17. “The Story of Betty Crocker,” GMA. On the occasion of her next overhaul, in 1965, Betty Crocker lost fifteen years and ten pounds; she came to look like an older Mrs. Kennedy or, perhaps, a younger Mrs. Johnson, with heavily sprayed hair, a suit, and unkitcheny ropes of pearls.

18. Betty Crocker19211954, p. 14.

19. Spigel, Lynn, “Television in the Family Circle: The Popular Reception of a New Medium,” in Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, ed. Mellencamp, Patricia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 76.

20. Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book (Minneapolis, Minn.: General Mills, 1950), pp. 23. The new kitchens were finished in 1946. For ads offering similar products for sale, see, for example, Better Homes and Gardens (28 [02 1950]: 22) for St. Charles Kitchens in assorted colors and (29 [October 1950]: 247) for redesigned Chambers gas ranges, also in color.

21. According to Jane, and Stern, Michael, Square Meals (New York: Knopf, 1984), p. 264, the classic California Dip was created in 1954, when Lipton published a recipe combining its dry onion soup mix with a carton of sour cream. But the idea predates 1954. Californian Helen Evans Brown introduced dipping foods and many other easy-eating recipes to the rest of the nation in the late 1940s; see Fisher, M. F. K., introduction to Helen Brown's Holiday Cook Book (Boston: Little, Brown, 1952), p. xi.

22. Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book, pp. 49, 80.The Sunset Barbecue Book (1947) was only one of many to suggest (as Helen Brown did) that outdoor dining, buffet style, was the new norm between the Rockies and the Pacific. Douglas, Mary, in Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), p. 257, suggests that barbecues and cocktail parties act as social bridges between intimacy and distance. They seem to blur the distinction in a particularly suburban way, making “Californian” the dining style of the housing tract.

23. “Short Cuts,” in Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book, pp. 427–28. For Brown ‘n’ Serve rolls, see “A Year of Customer Service,” General Mills Annual Report, 06 1, 1949–May 31, 1950, p. 3. For technical aspects of the process, see Gray, , Business Without Boundaries, pp. 253–54.Vitality News, a General Mills newspaper for the commercial baking industry, pushed the invention: see “New Whole Wheat ‘Brown ‘n’ Serve’ Ups Sales by 50%,” Vitality News 17 (08 1950): 1.

24. Smith, Sally Bedell, In All His Glory: The Life of William S. Paley (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), p. 479.

25. Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book, pp. 118–19.

26. General Mills Horizons (11 1951): 2.

27. Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book, pp. 152–53.

28. Fisher, M. F. K., The Art of Eating (Cleveland: World, 1954), pp. 643–44.

29. Wilmot, Jennie S. and Batjer, Margaret Q., Food for the Family: An Elementary College Text, 4th ed. (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1955), pp. 368–69.

30. Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book, pp. 271, 274, 276.

31. Shapiro, Laura, Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986), pp. 8491.

32. Cussler, Margaret and DeGive, Mary L., 'Twixt the Cup and the Lip: Psychological and Socio-Cultural Factors Affecting Food Habits (New York: Twayne, 1952), p. 48.

33. Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book, p. 5.

34. Cannon, Poppy (of Better Homes and Gardens and NBC's Home show), quoted in Hess, John L. and Hess, Karen, The Taste of America, 3rd ed. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989), p. 154.

35. “32 Food Concerns, a Governor Mobilized to Entertain Editors,” Food Field Reporter 21 (10 19, 1953): 1; and Strasser, Susan, Never Done: A History of American Housework (New York: Pantheon, 1982), pp. 276–77. The imagery of containment is obvious in the examples cited: modernity is kept under control when the convenience food is stuffed into a traditional one.

36. For another view of convenience foods of the 1950s, see Levenstein, Harvey A., Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 202–3.

37. Ad, American Home 51 (01 1954): 65.

38. I am grateful to Aggie Sirrine of the Society for the Humanities, Cornell University, for teaching me the correct presentations and preparation techniques involved in several of these dishes, including chicken a la king. The research for this essay was undertaken during my tenure as Senior Fellow at the Society in 1991.

39. The cake is so described in a famous Betty Crocker motto; see Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook, p. 115.

40. Written by Al Hoffman, Bob Merrill, and Clem Wats, the song was introduced in Chicago on the popular “Breakfast Club” radio show in 1950 and spent fifteen weeks on the charts; see Murrells, Joseph, Million Selling Records from the 1900s to the 1980s: An Illustrated Directory (New York: Arco, 1984), p. 62.

41. See “Roses-in-Snow Cake Kit for '50,” Vitality News 16 (03 1950): 1; “It's a Sweetheart,” 16 (01 1950): 1; and ads, for example, in The Baker's Digest 25 (02 1951): 46, and 25 (04 1951): 49.

42. Dichter, , Handbook of Consumer Motivations, p. 37. “Women also indicate that they turn to dessert-making when they are bored,” he added.

43. Goodman, Walter, The Clowns of Commerce (New York: Sagamore, 1957), pp. 2028, describes such a session, with a framed Betty Crocker ad hung on the wall for inspiration.

44. On freezers, see “Nargus Reports to Retailers,” National Grocers Bulletin 40 (02 1953): 3. See also Packard, , Hidden Persuaders, p. 73.

45. Dichter, Handbook of Consumer Motivations, p. 15) comments on this avoidance.

46. Langmuir, Mary Fisher, Ph.D., “Wife Trouble? Get her a job!American Magazine 149 (01 1950): 3637.

47. For Rice, Minute, see “Wonder-quick … and oh, so wonderful!Ladies' Home Journal 67 (01 1950): 32. For Readi-Whip, see Martin, Sam and Beck, Saul, “Forty Years of Quick Frozen Foods,” Quick Frozen Foods 41, no. 1 (08 1978): 49. For “Dinner-in-a-Shell,” see ad, Better Homes and Gardens 28 (09 1949): 73. For a collection of published recipes for various TV snacks and tabletop meals, see Recipes of Tomorrow by Betty Crocker (Minneapolis, Minn.: General Mills, 1954), esp. pp. 1011.

48. Gray, , Business Without Boundaries, pp. 251–52. The popularity of the cake was not wasted on General Mills executives, who had already decided that bread would be less of a staple in the postwar period and who concluded that, to make a profit, food-processing concerns had to develop new convenience products.

49. “Betty Crocker Chiffon Cake Makes History,” General Mills Annual Report, 06 1, 1947–May 31, 1948, p. 9.

50. Recipe-ad, Better Homes and Gardens 28 (10 1949): 23.

51. Dichter quoted in Mayer, Martin, Madison Avenue, U.S.A. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958), p. 123. Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn built the Crocker, Betty “I Guarantee” campaign around Dichter's recommendations.

52. Dichter, , Handbook of Consumer Motivations, p. 28.

53. Dichter, , The Strategy of Desire, pp. 183–84. “Ready-mixes,” he wrote in Advertising Age, “are … correct psychological answers to the conflict between individuality and [the] mass mind”; see Goodman, , Clowns of Commerce, p. 112.

54. “Eat Your Cake and Have It, Too,” Progress Thru Research 4, no. 1 (Fall 1949): 911.

55. “Nargus Reports,” National Grocers Bulletin 40, no. 1 (01 1953): 3. Competition increased and sales reached a plateau and finally began to decline as the 1950s wore on. “Old Favorite Food Items Lose Ground to Newer Products, Cleveland Survey Shows,” Advertising Age 25 (01 4, 1954): 20, noted that Pillsbury had pulled ahead in the cake-mix wars, with 26.6% of the market, whereas Betty Crocker (21.6%) and the new Duncan Hines brand (17.5%) trailed behind. In 1957, four in ten households used mixes regularly; see “Convenience Foods Have Scant Impact on Housewife, Ag. Department Study Says,” Advertising Age 28 (02 4, 1957): 46.

56. Packard, , Hidden Persuaders, pp. 6263. Failure potential rose as the castles of gelatin did, of course.

57. “Recipes: Too Elaborate?” Food Field Reporter 21 (08 24, 1953): 16.

58. See, for example, Container Corporation of America ad, Ice Cream Review 35, no. 3 (10 1951): 137. Red sold products to women and blue to men, according to the received wisdom of the 1950s (the red Marlboro package was the exception).

59. Seldon, Joseph J., The Golden Fleece: Selling the Good Life to Americans (New York: Macmillan, 1963), p. 90.

60. The fugue state that overtook shoppers in the presence of pictorial cake mix boxes is described in Packard, , Hidden Persuaders, p. 108.

61. “Biggest Show on Television Promotes Ice Cream,” Ice Cream Review 35, no. 3 (10 1951): 108, 110.

62. “Nargus Reports,” National Grocers Bulletin 40, no. 3 (03 1953): 3.

63. Untitled column, Progressive Grocer 33, no. 12 (12 1954): 95. For a similar argument, see “The Coming of Color,” Food Field Reporter 22 (01 25, 1954): 36.

64. Culp, Bill, “Swanson's TV Dinner: Behind the Debut of a New Product,” Frosted Food Field 18, no. 2 (02 1954): 78.

65. Ad, Quick Frozen Foods, 13, no. 8 (03 1951): 166; untitled article, Quick Frozen Foods 13, no. 9 (04 1951): 118; and “Frigidinner to Sell in Grocery Stores,” Food Field Reporter 21 (08 10, 1953): 28.

66. “Quaker State Markets Complete Frozen Meals,” Frosted Food Field 16, no. 2 (02 1953): 20; “Restaurant Chain Plans to Sell Frozen Dinners,” Frozen Food Field 16, no. 3 (03 1953): 1, 5; and “Quaker State Pushes Frozen Meals, Sees Big Market,” Frozen Food Field 17, no. 2 (08 1953): 29.Martin, and Beck, (“Forty Years,” pp. 51, 58) believe the first such product was an airline dinner in a circular dish (a “sky plate”) sold briefly in a New Jersey department store in 1946 under the name of Maxson's Strato-meals.

67. “Swanson Claims Packaging ‘First’ For Its TV Dinner's Outer Wrap,” Food Field Reporter 22 (01 11, 1954): 24.

68. Swanson was one of the first food companies to advertise extensively on television and the first to market poultry on a nationwide basis; see ad, Quick Frozen Foods 13, no. 7 (02 1951): 258G. Subsequently, television became the battleground for modern, convenience products, especially frozen foods (Morton frozen pies was a major sponsor of Dave Garroway's Today show in the mid-1950s, for example).

69. Culp, , “Swanson's TV Dinner,” p. 82.

70. For Armour, see ad, Progressive Grocer 33, no. 9 (09 1954): 159. For the TV Dessert, see “Frozen Desserts Coming,” Frozen Food Center 8, no. 2 (02 1954): 12; and “Packaging Notes,” Food [Great Britain] 23 (12 1954): 463–64. For packaged popcorn, see untitled article, Progressive Grocer 33, no. 8 (08 1954): 149, and ad, p. 220. Formerly a concession food, popcorn was a growth industry in the 1950s thanks to home entertainment; see “Nargus Reports,” National Grocers Bulletin 40, no. 5 (05 1953): 3.

71. Sales surpassed those of the popular (and cheaper) frozen pot pie by 419 percent for a comparable introductory period; see untitled article, Food Field Reporter 22 (06 28, 1954): 8.

72. For the printing process, see untitled article, Frosted Food Field 16, no. 6 (06 1953): 13.

73. Untitled article, Frosted Food Field 20, no. 2 (02 1955): 3, 8.

74. “Ullman Returned, Shuns Picture Use, Hails the Unusual,” Food Field Reporter 20 (10 5, 1953): 41.

75. “Cake Mix Gallery of Pictures Steals Story From Brand Names, Nash Tells Conclave,” Food Field Reporter 20 (10 5, 1953): 43.

76. See note 55. On cake mix packages, see also Seldon, , Golden Fleece, p. 152.

77. “Betty Crocker Cuts Its Cake Mix Prices,” Food Field Reporter 23 (04 5, 1954): 38; and “Red Spoon Is Selected As Betty Crocker Sign,” Food Field Reporter 23 (05 17, 1954): 31. The spoon was designed by Lippincott and Marguilies of New York City.

78. Untitled article, Advertising Age 28 (03 11, 1957): 21; and “Armour Tests Dial Soap in 5 New Colors in 2 Midwest Cities,” Aduertising Age 28 (04 1, 1957): 1.

79. Weiss, E. B., “Packaged Meals Pose New Problems for Advertisers, Merchandizers,” Advertising Age 25 (01 18, 1954): 66.

80. “Who Started It, Anyway?” Advertising Age 28 (09 2, 1957): 62.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed