Hearth to Hearth: Rastus & Friends – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – April 2003
by Alice Ross
In the course of American advertising, a number of food companies have created fictional people to represent them and to symbolize their product. Today their names ring a bell, although we are not always sure who they were and what they were selling. For example, we are aware of Aunt Jemima and her long association with pancake mixes, but less conscious of the Baker’s Chocolate Dutch girl. In their heyday, the most familiar of these figures became part of American popular culture, where they not only triggered product recognition but also took on folk characters of their own. The companies that created them reinforced this further by manufacturing streams of spin-off items made of paper, tin, and ceramic ware—figurines, cookie jars, pitchers, salt and pepper shakers, cookbooks, prints, etc. These were sometimes sold inexpensively and sometimes given away in exchange for the premiums that accompanied the product itself. Although today there is an active market for these remnants of early advertising, many are being reproduced to help satisfy the demand for such memorabilia.
Among the oldest and most famous of these, the Quaker Oats man is still to be found on the large tubular boxes of cooking cereal. His history goes back to 1877 and the advertising scheme for Ferdinand Schumacher’s oatmeal; his sturdy, honest image was the first registered breakfast cereal trademark, and has changed relatively little since.
In the same vein, the Baker’s Dutch Chocolate girl was an important symbol that has changed very little since its first use in the late 1800s. Her lovely portrait, very much in the style of old Dutch masters, showed her in profile, dressed in the pastel costume and carrying a tray with a cup of hot cocoa. Her image still appears from time to time, and continues to be a desirable bit of early advertising on cookbooks, Baker’s chocolate product tins, trade cards, and such.
Perhaps the most interesting is Rastus, the Cream of Wheat man. Almost a male counterpart of Aunt Jemima, Rastus also represented Southern images in a day when racism was blatant and commonplace. He was depicted as the idealized, dignified black chef, knowledgeable and accomplished in his craft. He was charming and agreeable in a Southern way, and affable with the children who would, after all, be consumers of breakfast cereal. But despite his clear and simple stereotyping, his presentation to the public was far more complex.
Rastus first appeared in November, 1896 in a small ad in the Ladies Home Journal. Before long, his image was codified into the familiar one, based on a photograph that enabled years of consistent portrayal. Within a few years the Cream of Wheat Company increased its budgets for promotions and launched what was to become a remarkable advertising campaign. A series of noted artists were commissioned to render paintings and drawings that involved the Rastus character. These were initially unsigned and were fairly typical of small black-and-white illustrations of the period.
However, in 1908 they took on a more developed and inspired esthetic quality and were now presented as larger compositions, increasingly in color and identified by its title and the signature of its particular commercial artist. Perhaps what made these ads so extraordinary was their total dependence on compelling art work. Their captivating, soft-sell illustrations and implied messages filled an entire magazine page, and eliminated the usual text. A significant force in the era’s “Golden Age of Advertising,” Cream of Wheat was to commission multiple works by over fifty prominent commercial artists, each of whom had trained in such important schools as the Chicago Art Institute, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, or the Art Students League of New York.
Despite the varied styles and contexts of the pictures, Rastus appeared in each illustration. Sometimes he was the center of the illustration’s action and sometimes an almost-incidental reference such as a small poster in a grocery store scene or the ad of a magazine lying open near a child on the living room floor. During this twenty-some-year period Rastus’s depictors documented American life—the changes in the fashion of imagery and in the shifting social settings of American families. Among these, they recorded the introduction of the automobile, patriotic themes at the time of World War I, and then images of women moving from the home to more public spaces and activities.
The Cream of Wheat Company expanded their projected audiences when, in the 1920s, the Rastus image was used in the advertising posters displayed in the most common urban transportation system—the trolley car. In addition, they applied the Rastus motif to their cookbooks, postcards, trade and premium cards, and cloth and paper dolls.
However, after 1925 the illustrations, still wonderful, began to share the page with larger blocked off areas of hard-sell text, and the Rastus image was moved from the painting itself to a small area within the commercial message. No longer a participant in the painting’s action, he was was used as a logo, continuing the formal image that had been used since the 1890s on cereal tins and boxes, posters, and memorabilia. He was still given an authoritative role, but was more a reference to the product than the force behind it. Although the original artistic format was to be repeated from time to time during the Depression years, Rastus had lost his vibrant place.
After 1940, Al Capp and the characters of his comic strip Li’l Abner took over Cream of Wheat promotions, and the format was now one of cartooning. Rastus, however, continued to appear on the page in his traditional image, often in the last cell of the story line, reinforcing the theme with his message on the virtues of the product.
Rastus’ contribution to Cream of Wheat’s economic success cannot be evaluated in dollars and cents, but it was certainly effective. The name of the product became synonymous with a cooked farina breakfast cereal, a generic term comparable to “Kleenex” or “Jello.” In fact, it was listed that way in cookbooks that did not customarily promote commercial products — for example, the 1933 edition of The Settlement Cookbook included a recipe for “Farina or Cream of Wheat,” although the recipe was the same as the one on the cereal box.
Cream of Wheat is still around, and its logo is still Rastus. Early advertisements and memorabilia have become highly collectible. Its current owner, Nabisco, has recently reproduced a 1920s packaging tin for collectors, a sure sign of the public’s interest, and hundreds of pieces of ephemera and Rastus gimcrackery appear daily on eBay (at this writing over 250). And, of course, you will find the original ads, perhaps even the original paintings and drawings or engraving plates for sale in the shops of dealers in ephemera and paper. The best of them are still fine art.
Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is email@example.com. Her web site is www.aliceross.com
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