By: Hope Hill
The first trademark associated with Aunt Jemima was registered in the principal register by the Quaker Oats Company, (Quaker Oats) in 1890 after they purchased The Aunt Jemima Milling Company. The company was founded and named by Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood, who developed the self-rising flour mix. Rutt attended a minstrel show featuring the character “Aunt Jemima” and used the name and image of the character for his company, that he ultimately sold. Quaker Oats hired a formerly enslaved woman by the name of Nancy Green, who entered into a lifetime contract, that required her to travel on promotional tours across the country telling the story of a mammy who made and served her secret family recipe to her loving white family.
Because of Nancy Green, and later Anna Robinson who replaced her after she died, we are all familiar with the infamous Aunt Jemima brand. The Lanham Act protects all distinctive marks unless it “consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter.” 15 U.S.C. §1052(a). In determining whether a mark is scandalous or immoral, the examining attorney gives consideration to the moral values and conduct which “contemporary society has deemed to be appropriate and acceptable.” Attorneys look to the relevant marketplace for the goods and services identified in the application and must ascertain from the standpoint of a “substantial composite of the general public.”
On its face, the “Aunt Jemima” brand is not immoral or scandalous. However, the Supreme Court has noted, that the word "comprises,” in the statute, meant "includes" and thus Congress extended the prohibition not only to marks that consist of scandalous matter but also to marks that include scandalous matter. Scandalous has been defined as “shocking to the sense of propriety, offensive to the conscience or moral feelings or calling out for condemnation.” Here, the Aunt Jemima brand includes scandalous matter because (1) the mark is derived from a minstrel show where white people performed in blackface, (2) the brand tells a story of a happy “slave Mammy.” For these very reasons alone, the Aunt Jemima brand can be deemed scandalous by definition.
Although the company has since tried to hide its dark and oppressive past, this not automatically eliminate the racism that exists in its long-standing mark. Aunt Jemima was historically shown as a dark-skinned, heavy-set woman, who was supposed to be undesirable, and happy to serve her “secret” pancake recipe to her white owners. This image and story was promoted to across the country to (1) dispel the notion that white men found Black women desirable and (2) to give every American household wanted at that time; a slave. However, it is well known that household females, who were enslaved, were often biracial daughters of rape, desired by white men, abused by both white men and woman, and extremely unhappy. The Aunt Jemima fable formed a foundation for decades of advertising that created a recognizable image that gave people a social status that came with owning an enslaved person. Hence, The Aunt Jemima Milling Company has never merely sold pancakes, they have always sold this image and story. A story that is deemed to satisfy the immoral and scandalous standard set out in section 2(a) of the Lanham Act to bar registration of the mark.
Over the years, Aunt Jemima’s image has changed and is less depicted in commercials and restaurants as a traditional mammy figure. However, that doesn’t change the very real connotation that the brand represents and displays just because it has a water-downed version today. After learning the history, it is clear what this company is selling and how it feels about people who share a common ancestry with this so-called Aunt Jemima caricature. I hope you don’t forget this the next time you have some of Aunt Jemima’s pancake and syrup for breakfast.