General Mills’ Archives Store a Rich Corporate History
A rare picture of Betty Crocker not in her signature red suit.
In a nondescript building off University Avenue in SE Minneapolis hangs a “scandalous” painting of Betty Crocker. The prolific cookbook author and General Mills answer woman is wearing not her signature red, but a smart green dress, adorned with a single strand of pearls.
“Betty in green was to depict her day off,” says Jessica Faucher, General Mills corporate archivist. And even on her day off she was working—serving a casserole topped with biscuits made from Gold Medal flour.
As most of us know, Betty isn’t a real person, but she’s been a lifeline for legions of homemakers since 1921 when she answered her first question on behalf of the company. The advertising director at the time knew that a man replying to housewives’ questions about baking wouldn’t carry much cache, so he invented a personality who would have credibility with the audience. Crocker was the last name of a beloved employee who was retiring, and Betty was chosen because it was a popular name at the time and sounded friendly.
At first “Betty Crocker” was just a signature on a letter, but as her expertise became legendary, a headshot of Betty was created based on a composite of the women who worked in the home economics department answering all those letters. The last update to Betty’s look was in 1996. It was another composite, but this time drawn from essays by fans describing qualities they saw in Betty, says Faucher.
“Betty” penned the first cookbook with pictures, and even branched out to cover such subjects as knitting, growing house plants and budgeting, Faucher says. And even though she could bake circles around the average woman, soup was the first product with her name on it.
The history of the icon is just one of the fun facts housed in the archives at General Mills. While it’s not open to the public, we were fortunate to get a private tour because Stephanie Steidl, marketing communication assistant manager, serves on our Charlie Awards advisory board.
The climate-controlled, 3,000-square-foot vault holds a treasure of General Mills 151-year history, starting with its rise as the Washburn Crosby company. Cadwallader Washburn was one of the first to see the power to be harvested in the St. Anthony falls and built a flour mill utilizing it. The locals called it Washburn’s Folly, sure that it would fail. In May of 1878, the Mill blew up, destroying five city blocks and killing 18 workers. Washburn, who was living in Wisconsin at the time, returned to Minneapolis to implement factory safety procedures—fine “flour particles are more combustible than gun powder,” Faucher says—and to share his safety enhancements with his competitors.
One of the treasures Faucher pulled to show off was the first Wheaties box. By the 1920s flour sales were declining as people wanted the convenience of ready-to-eat products. Wheaties debuted in 1922 as Washburn-Crosby Whole Wheat Flakes. Not exactly a catchy title, so they held a contest to find a new name, and an employee’s wife came up with the winner. The first athlete to appear on the box (in 1934) was Lou Gehrig, the New York Yankees’ first baseman known as the Iron Horse. He, however, appeared on the back of the box. Olympian Bob Richards was the first athlete to appear on the front of the box.
To promote its products, the Washburn Crosby company purchased a radio station (WCCO). On December 24, 1926, the first live radio jingle aired. When the quartet sang, people rushed out and bought the cereal, however, sales were flat in other markets. Quartets were brought into radio studios all over the country, thus consistently spiking sales every time the commercials aired.
Here are some other fun facts we picked up:
The best-selling Cheerios debuted in 1941 as Cheerioats, but a trademark dispute revised it to the shorter, more punchy name. The company experimented with 10 different shapes, include dumbbells and stars, before settling on the donut shape created with a puffing gun.
In 2009 Honey Nut Cheerios took the No. 1 spot from its sister brand. The bee that graced the front of the box is named BuzzBee, thanks to a little girl who submitted that name in a contest in 2001.
A salesman came up with the idea of Bisquick while riding on a train. As the story goes, he missed meal service and begged the porter to find something for him to eat. When the porter returned a few minutes later with freshly baked biscuits, the curious salesman approached the cook to find out his secret, which turned out to be a refrigerated prepared mix that was ready to bake on demand.
Under a Plexiglass box was a miniature Gold Medal flour sack pin cushion that was a giveaway in the early 1900s to Saturday Evening Post readers who completed the jumble puzzle. About 30,000 people claimed their prize, Faucher says, and yet the pin cushions are a rare find.
We also saw several different versions of the Pillsbury Doughboy, who came with the acquisition of Pillsbury in 2001. The early Claymation version of the Doughboy required 24 still images for one second of film, a laborious project to get a giggle out of stylized lump of dough.
The archives are to preserve the company’s history for its employees, Faucher says. While they occasionally loan out some of their artifacts for museum exhibits, they don’t have a permanent display nor do they have a traveling exhibition.
Donations to the collection are from employees, retirees and occasionally consumers. They don’t pay for the items, and everything has to be authentic, which is where Faucher’s expertise comes into play. She’s the only full-time employee, aided by three employees who share their time with the archives and other departments, plus grad students, as well as corporate work study high school students, who serve as interns.
Faucher has a master’s in library science from St. Catherine University and a BA in history and humanities. “Finding the answers is something I love,” she says, which makes her well suited for researching donated items and organizing packaging and photos and artifacts that spell out a 151-year-old history. Fortunately, for her, the history is well documented in volume after volume of employee newsletters, ledgers and papers. “Google’s not always the answer,” she says.