Cream of Wheat ad with black chef
I had noticed the Cream of Wheat ad but had not really noticed it. You know, the way you see something out of the corner of your eye but you move on rather than stopping to take a close look.
The “something” was that ubiquitous Cream of Wheat logo of the black smiling chef in his white coat and hat. I’d seen the image too many times – who hasn’t? – and it didn’t exactly appeal to me there on a shelf at the auction house.
It had not always been that way. I had a framed copy of a reproduction print of a Cream of White ad hanging in my house long before I discovered fine art by African Americans. I donated it along with some other items to a service agency that assisted families in need. I recalled that either the director or staffer liked it so much that one of them took it home (the staffers were also people in need).
This World War I framed ad at auction looked to be an original from a magazine, and was drawn by Edward V. Brewer in 1919. Click on the image above for a full view.
The Cream of Wheat chef is considered a derogatory persona, with his perpetual smile and subservient demeanor. He was supposed to evoke a feeling of wholesome goodness during a time when people who looked like him were not living a life made comfortable by a few spoonsful of hot white porridge. The makers of this image wanted white mothers and their children to feel protected by this benevolent man, and to eat their comfort food from his reassuring hand.
As I sat there waiting for the auction to start, I finally focused on the ad and thought about my old print. I knew very little about the chef himself (or even if he was real) or the product itself. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten Cream of Wheat or even had a box of it in my house.
The origin of the chef appears to be unresolved. The Cream of Wheat website says that Emery Mapes, a part-owner of the mill that started making the product in 1893 and the person who managed the advertising campaign, found among some old printing plates an image of a black chef holding a saucepan. Here’s a 1907 ad of a similar image.
Another story was that Mapes was in a Chicago restaurant where he saw a black chef and gave him $5 to pose for a picture.
Others repeated that it was actually an African American chef named Frank L. White who worked at a Chicago restaurant and was photographed around the turn of the century. White himself told neighbors in his hometown of Leslie, MI, that he was the featured chef, according to a Michigan man who researched the chef and got a headstone erected on his grave in 2007. White died in 1938.
Cream of Wheat called the man gracing their boxes and ads as “Rastus the chef,” choosing a racist and derogatory term used for African Americans. I had never heard the term before, but it apparently was as prevalent as the “N” word. In his autobiography, Malcolm X remembered being called it so much when he attended a white elementary school in Lansing, MI, that he thought it was his real name.
Several sites repeated the story that the NAACP urged the company to eliminate the use of the word, and it complied but kept the chef image.
Despite the image, the Cream of Wheat drawings from the start were meant to be art and not just throwaway advertising. Mapes enlisted some of the best and well-known artists/illustrators of the early 20th century, including N.C. Wyeth, Philip R. Goodwin,J.C. Leyendecker and Jessie Willcox Smith. Some of them had studied under Howard Pyle, and created covers for the Saturday Evening Post and other publications.
Many of the images were those of little white children enjoying the porridge, with the chef on a poster in the background, on a box or in the illustration itself. When black children or black people were featured – on the illustrations I saw – they were stereotypical.
What could have been a lovely drawing of a little black boy sitting on a crate eating a bowl of Cream of Wheat was marred by a discarded watermelon behind him. I had first seen the illustration as a black and white ad in a magazine called “Everybody’s Magazine.” The watermelons were not as distinct in black in white as they were in color. The illustration, titled “A Case of Desertion,” was done in 1918 by Denman Fink. (Can’t the child eat his porridge in peace, without having a watermelon dogging him?)
The Cream of White ads were among the most recognizable images in advertising, and the company was among the first to license its products effectively. It heavily advertised the image on cups, bowls and children blocks.
At the auction, it was merely the ad – the first one I’ve come across before. The auctioneer suggested that it was both Black Americana and World War I memorabilia, hoping to boost interest. The appeal among us auction-goers was mild: The ad sold for $27.50.