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Aunt Jemima, what took you so long?

Evidence from 1915 Court Case: Aunt Jemima Mills Company v. Rigney and Company

Today’s guest post for “What’s Cooking Wednesdays” comes from Acting Director Patrick Connelly with Education Specialist Christopher Zarr of the National Archives at New York City.

Sometimes walking down the stacks of the National Archives can be like walking down the aisles of your local supermarket. Names like Heinz, Anheuser-Busch, Hershey, Sara Lee, and Perrier line the shelves of the National Archives.

The only difference is that these brands aren’t for sale—they are a part of the holdings of district court records of the National Archives. Whether Good Humor and Popsicle are waging a different kind of cold war involving patents or, as in the following case, Aunt Jemima is accusing competitors of trademark infringement, food fights are common in the district courts.

Aunt Jemima has been adorning the tables of America’s breakfast nooks for well over a century. R.T. Davis Milling Company brought this racially charged image to life in 1890 when it hired Nancy Green to be the company’s spokesperson. Success even led the company to change its name to the Aunt Jemima Mills Company. Later purchased by the Quaker Oats Company in 1926, Aunt Jemima’s name and face helped sell milled oats, grains, and ready-mix pancake flour. Surprisingly absent (at least to me) from the product line was pancake syrup. It would take nearly 50 years, at least two lawsuits and even the precedent-setting principle the “Aunt Jemima Doctrine” before Aunt Jemima realized it should be in the syrup business.

Photograph of a bottle of syrup from the 1942 Court Case: Quaker Oats Company v. Aunt Jemima Syrup Company

The trademark lawsuits stem from the fact that a number of companies in the early 20th century used the moniker Aunt Jemima to sell a host of products—everything from corn bread to pancake flour and, yes, pancake syrup. In fact, I first happened upon the Aunt Jemima issue in a 1942 case involving a local company from Paterson, NJ. This Aunt Jemima Syrup Company found itself in a sticky situation when it was sued by the Quaker Oats Company for a trademark breach.

A review of court documents showed that the case against the Aunt Jemima Syrup Company was clear cut. Quaker held several trademarks on the Aunt Jemima name and the syrup company made no attempt to hide the fact that they were using the words Aunt Jemima on each and every syrup bottle.

I was surprised to find out, however, that Quaker had a very special precedent on its side from a 1915 court case that, as luck would have it, is also held by the National Archives at New York City. Rigney and Company, a manufacturer of pancake syrup, was using the name and face of Aunt Jemima to sell its product, much to the chagrin of the Aunt Jemima Mills Company.

Evidence from the 1915 Court Case: Aunt Jemima Mills Company v. Rigney and Company

The Aunt Jemima Mills Company alleged that Rigney produced an inferior pancake syrup under the banner Aunt Jemima and that, “so packed and marked as [Aunt Jemima] . . . has created in the minds of purchasers the belief that the said goods are a product of the plaintiff.” The judge in the case agreed with the plaintiff, finding that while the pancake flour and pancake syrup were not the same product (and thus did not compete with each other), since they were related to each other in their uses, consumers could be confused and mislead to think the same company manufactured both flour and syrup.

This (you guessed it) “Aunt Jemima Doctrine” greatly expanded trademark rights. Prior to this ruling, trademark infringement meant another company was selling the same product under the same name.

Despite feeling that using its name and logo on a syrup bottle were worthy of litigation, Aunt Jemima didn’t enter the syrup business until 1966, when its initial slogan was “Aunt Jemima, what took you so long?”

So next time you sit down for a Sunday breakfast with your trademarked Aunt Jemima Pancakes and Aunt Jemima Syrup and feel safe and secure that  they were manufactured by the same company, realize that wasn’t always the case: we have the records to prove it.

Personally, this decision doesn’t affect me—I’m a Mrs. Butterworth man.

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Comments

Comment from Rebecca
Time August 4, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Great post! My favorite food-related court case is still the one in which Hersheys sued a company that was marketing Hersheys’ chocolate flavored tooth paste. The court case file even contains an empty tube of the tooth paste.

Comment from Alisa
Time August 5, 2011 at 9:36 am

What a well written and engaging article! I look forward to more like this.