Crocker, the Grand Dame of American Cookbooks.
By Sharon Palmer
Who conjures up the image of classic nurturing kitchen queen better than good ol' Betty Crocker? Alas, if only she were real....
Betty was actually the genius creation, in 1921, of the Washburn Crosby Co. of Minneapolis (one of the big milling companies that would merge into General Mills). She presented the firm with a "personalized" approach to answering customers' baking inquiries. Who would have thought that this fictional character would soon embody all that is good in American cooking?
By now, Betty Crocker's name has been emblazoned on thousands of food products, cookbooks, and publications. At the height of her popularity in the 1940s, Betty received up to 5,000 letters per day at her "office" at General Mills. And when her 1950 Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book was first released, sales rivaled those of the Bible.
Today, those treasured Betty Crocker cookbooks are finding a place in collectors' hearts. "Betty Crocker cookbooks sell like hotcakes," says Rosanne Simon, owner of Kitchengarden & Purses, an online business at Ruby Lane.com that sells vintage cookbooks. "Everybody likes nostalgia."
And Eddie Edwards, who runs OldCookbooks.com with her husband Peter Peckham, says, "Betty Crocker cookbooks are among my top five sellers."
Vintage cookbook dealers enthusiastically agree that people are coming back to Betty because of her recipes. Some seek to replace an old cookbook they remember their mother using. Others buy vintage copies of their favorite family cookbook for their children to start up their own cooking traditions. Still others may simply be looking for the cookbook that has "that recipe for tomato soup cake" an aunt used to make. Call it a Betty Crocker obsession; you've just got to have that cookbook.
"I wouldn't even call them collectors," says Greenwich, N.Y.-based dealer Bonnie Slotnick. "They're devoted to Betty Crocker and they used these books to death."
Slotnick, who has been interviewed for television appearances and quoted in The New York Times on Betty Crocker cookbooks, has become General Mills' official source for out-of-print cookbooks. She finds it moving, she says, that "people actually cry when they see a Betty Crocker cookbook they remember."
Jennifer Krausnick, owner of Gertrude's Garret, a vintage cookbook seller hosted at Ruby Lane.com, understands the appeal: "Betty Crocker cookbooks are popular because of functionality, friendliness, familiarity, and fun," she says. "The brand built its reputation on kitchen-tested recipes backed up by the helpful Ms. Crocker."
Betty Crocker cookbooks traditionally featured triple-tested recipes that were often illustrated with pictures and step-by-step instructions. Readers could always count on Betty for recipes that were simple, economical, and delicious. She also popularized such American classics as "snickerdoodles" and "pigs in a blanket."
BETTY CROCKER PIE PARADE
Example of 1950s soft-cover Betty Crocker booklets. "Pie Parade is a particularly popular one," says dealer Jennifer Krausnick.
BETTY'S BEST SELLERS
Experts agree that the most popular Crocker tomes include the 1969 classic Betty Crocker's Cookbook (commonly known as the "red pie cover"); the 1950, 1956, 1961, and 1969 editions of Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book; and Betty Crocker's Cooky Book from 1963.
Eddie Edwards is starting a basic American cookbook database as a reference tool for her business and has upwards of 40 Betty Crocker cookbooks in her collection thus far. One of the most popular subcategories within the Betty Crocker cookbook line, she reports, are celebrity cookbooks. Among the hot sellers among collectors, she says, is Let the Stars Show You How to Take a Trick a Day With Bisquick (as told to Betty Crocker). In this 1935 book, such stars like Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Bette Davis dole out cooking tips.
Some Betty Crocker cookbooks have crossover appeal, such as Your Share (1943), a title that attracts the attention of those who collect wartime-related items.
THE CROCKER MYSTIQUE
So how was our beloved Betty Crocker born? In 1921, her name was borrowed from retired Washburn Crosby Co. executive William Crocker, whose surname was paired with "Betty," a name perceived as warm and friendly. Her signature, the same one still used today, came straight from the hand of a company secretary who won a contest. Her voice on the national radio show The Betty Crocker School of the Air was embodied by 13 different actresses. In 1936, her face was morphed from all of the women in the company's Home Service Department. Over the next 75 years, her look was transformed to keep up with the times.
Betty Crocker has come to mean more than just the face of a campaign. Her cookbooks ushered women through society's changes, dealing with Depression-era food budgets, the introduction of convenience foods, and the dual-income family's need for easy recipes. In 1945, she was voted the second most popular American woman-right after Eleanor Roosevelt. There are people today who believe Betty is alive and well, tucked away in some test kitchen, stirring up a perfect batch of brownies.
Susan Marks has found Betty Crocker so interesting that she wrote a book called Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America's First Lady of Food (Simon & Schuster, 2005). She also produced a documentary based on her book, drawing on the General Mills archives for research. "Right from the start, Betty was a mother figure, friend, confidant, and mentor all rolled up together," she says. "Generations upon generations trusted in Betty because her advice and recipes were actually good."
Although Betty Crocker cookbooks can be scooped up in flea markets and garage sales for a few bucks, hot titles (such as 1969's Betty Crocker's Cookbook) in good condition can fetch upwards of $300. Slotnick reports that she has a 1950 cookbook with the original dust jacket priced at $100; it's one of the most valuable in her inventory.
Condition is key when it comes to valuing old Betty Crocker cookbooks, especially those that were well-used --- as you would expect of a cookbook. But, advises, Slotnick, "Don't think of Betty Crocker cookbooks as an investment. Buy them because you love them."
While collectors are most familiar with Betty Crocker in the form of her prolific cookbooks, she also put her famous signature on a number of kitchen collectibles. American women have been clipping Betty Crocker Points off packages of flour, brownie mix, and cereal for years, saving up for a Betty Crocker set of kitchen ware, from Oneida flatware to Fiesta dishes. Recently, the company announced it will discontinue this program. Meanwhile, vintage Betty Crocker wares have made it into the collectibles arena: Ceramic mixing bowls, biscuit bakers, dolls, and junior baking kits range in price from about $15-$75.
About the author
Sharon Palmer is a freelancer based in California.