Money  /  Explainer

The Power of Corporate Interests Over Home Baking

Throughout the early 20th century, food corporations created advertisement campaigns directed at women.

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. 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. Through 1933, the baking industry overall remained profitable and saw only a small decline in employment and wages. 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. 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. 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.”

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.