Archive for the ‘All News’ Category

Aunt Jemima® and Betty Crocker: American Cultural Icons that Never Existed

May 11th, 2017

Aunt Jemima® and Betty Crocker have been American cultural icons for decades, but neither of these women ever existed. Both were created by marketers to better sell products. What is especially incredible about these two marketing campaigns is the years consumers believed they were depicting real women. Aunt Jemima was created in the 1890s and Betty Crocker was developed about thirty years later in the 1920s. While there have been updates to both characters since their creation, until recent years both remained stuck in the time period they were created and helped to perpetuate stereotypes.

It was and still is common to use women in marketing campaigns around food products. Since women have long been seen by marketers as the primary consumer of domestic products there has been a focus on selling to women by women. Betty Crocker’s campaign was so well done, according to an April 1945 Fortune magazine, she was the second best known American woman, only after Eleanor Roosevelt. While never quit as well-known as Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima has also had a lasting impact on consumers and sparked decades of racial debates.

Looking Backwards to Sell

Originally Aunt Jemima was a ready mix created in 1889 by the Pearl Milling Company. This product sparked a brand, which included the character of Aunt Jemima. Nancy Green, a cook and storyteller, was the first woman hired to bring Aunt Jemima to life. She played the character at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Aunt Jemima was depicted as a formerly enslaved cook who spoke with a stereotypical enslaved dialect. Her clothing reflected the same idea, dressed in the costume of a post-Civil War formerly enslaved woman, wearing a simple dress, apron, and head scarf

Credit: National Women’s History Museum
Credit: National Women’s History Museum
Credit: National Women’s History Museum

Credit: National Women’s History Museum

At the 1933 World’s Fair Aunt Jemima was portrayed by another woman, Anna Robinson. Robinson not only appeared at the fair, but also traveled the country promoting the Aunt Jemima line of products. It became a social event to go and see Aunt Jemima make pancakes. This lead to changes in the Aunt Jemima logo so it was a closer likeness to Robinson.

While the character was not created until the 1890s, Aunt Jemima’s clothing and language in 1950s still harked back to the post-Civil War time period. In this ad, Aunt Jemima is quoted saying “I’se” instead of “I”, highlighting the racist dialect the character used. Her clothing was also not updated and still represents post-Civil War African Americans. In these ads often the only African American included is Aunt Jemima and they perpetuate a glorified view of life on a plantation in the South.

Betty Crocker was Born

Betty Crocker’s creation was a bit different from Aunt Jemima’s. Instead of being created as part of a logo, Betty Crocker was developed a piece at a time. Throughout the late 1910s and early 1920s, the Washburn Crosby Company (a precursor to General Mills), received thousands of questions from women across the country about their baking conundrums. In 1921, the Washburn Crosby’s advertising department decided the best solution was to create a warm, friendly, and authoritative figure who could answer these questions.

Betty Crocker’s last name was taken from a recently retired director of Washburn Crosby, William G. Crocker. “Betty” was chosen as the character’s first name for its wholesome and maternal quality. To create her signature a contest was held among the female employees at Washburn Crosby and the most unique was selected. It is the same signature still used today. From that point on, Betty Crocker signed response to letters written to the company on baking, cooking, and domestic issues. In 1924, her voice was created when Washburn Crosby began airing a cooking radio show called, the Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air. Marjorie Child Husted provided the first Betty Crocker voice. When the show was picked up by multiple stations, additional women voiced Betty Crocker. Husted, a home economist, continued to voice her show and wrote the scripts for all of the other Betty Crockers.

Credit: National Women’s History Museum

Credit: National Women’s History Museum

Credit: National Women’s History Museum

Credit: National Women’s History Museum

In 1936, Betty Crocker was given a face. Artist Neysa McMein blended the facial features of the Washburn Crosby Home Service Department’s female employees. While created base on a representation of working women, Betty Crocker was not dressed as a professional woman. Since then, Betty Crocker’s look has updated multiple times to better reflect the women buying her product.

Modern Women

Aunt Jemima and Betty Crocker are still prominent characters today, helping to sell many products. Since their creation each woman’s appearance has been altered to relate to a wider audience. Aunt Jemima’s skin lighted over time, whereas Betty Crocker’s skin was darkened to olive in 1996 to give her a more multicultural look. Both women also wear more professional clothing. Today Aunt Jemima wears a lace collar and pearl earrings. Betty Crocker, who does not appear on her products, no longer wears a suit jacket, instead she wears a simple red sweater. These updated looks help modern consumers relate to the characters, not real women, on their favorite flour mixes.




Originally Published April 2013 by Sydnee Winston, Project Coordinator
Edited and Republished May 2017 by Jeanette Patrick, Program Manager



Recommended Readings: 

  • Marks, Susan. Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
  • Avey, Tori. “Who Was Betty Crocker?” PBS. February 15, 2013. Accessed May 10, 2017.
  • “Our History.” Aunt Jemima. Accessed May 10, 2017.
  • “The Story of Betty Crocker.” Betty Crocker. Accessed May 10, 2017.
  • “Who Was Betty Crocker?” Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Accessed May 10, 2017.
  • Zillman, Claire. “Why its so hard for Aunt Jemima to ditch her unsavory past.” Fortune. August 12, 2104. Accessed May 10, 2017.


To read how the technology of the 1950s all-electric kitchen impacted women click here.

Garden Clubs Provided Fertile Ground for Women’s Activism

April 16th, 2017

April 16, 2017

In the early 19th century, bright, educated women became active in various reform movements. The activists among them joined abolitionist societies and petitioned for woman suffrage. With the advent of the Civil War, a wider circle of women joined together to support the causes of soldiers and their families. They formed sewing circles, held fundraising fairs, and volunteered directly with causes. After the war, women seeking intellectual and social outlets continued to rapidly establish women’s clubs.

Clubs formed around many different issues from literary and musical societies, social reform movements, and beautification. In the years between the 1870s and 1920s, women’s clubs became the major vehicle by which American women could exercise their developing talents to shape the world beyond their homes. Clubs afforded not only social opportunity but also leadership. As clubs grew, and counted locally influential women among their rolls, clubs could effect change both nationally and locally. They rapidly became part of the growing Progressive Movement.

Germinating a Movement

Forming garden clubs was a natural expression of interest in nature and beauty. Horticultural societies and botany groups, some dating back to colonial times, restricted women’s membership. In response women formed their own clubs within their own communities. The first garden club in America was founded in January 1891 as The Ladies Garden Club of Athens, Georgia. On May 1, 1929, 13 federated states became charter members of the National Garden Clubs at an organizational meeting in Washington, D.C. The Garden Club of America was founded in 1913.While many started with the goal of exchanging information and cuttings, they soon adopted larger missions, which indelibly shaped the American landscape.

Planting Seeds of Patriotism

KenmoreThe United States celebrated its centennial in 1876, and on the heels of the Civil War and Reconstruction, amid an influx of immigrants, and in the face of a growing women’s movement, many rallied around the centennial as a reaffirmation of classic American values and culture. Cities and towns planned elaborate celebrations and pageants. Groups formed to preserve historic houses and buildings associated with the Founding Fathers. Scores of historical societies were formed.

The garden club movement became closely affiliated with the historic preservation movement by adopting the restoration of historical landmarks gardens and grounds as projects. The Garden Club of Virginia was among the first and the most ambitious in undertaking restoration projects. Founded in 1920 by eight garden clubs from around the Commonwealth, the GCV’s first project was the restoration of the grounds at Kenmore, the home of George Washington’s sister Betty and her husband Fielding Lewis. The Garden Club of Virginia’s restoration, started in 1929, includes a large tree-shaded lawn and rear garden arranged in an eighteenth-century formal plan. The GCV’s members hired professional landscape designers and historical consultants to execute the projects.

Mary ShermanThe Garden Club of Virginia raised money through traditional women’s networks. They staged a large flower show in 1927, raising $7,000 towards the restoration of Thomas Jefferson’s gardens at Monticello. The GCV held the first Historic Garden Week of Virginia, featuring tours of prominent homes and gardens, in 1929. Today, GCV’s 8-day Historic Garden Week attracts 30,000 visitors to 250 homes across the state and has raised $17 million since its inception. The organization continues to fund conservation and restoration, including an effort to restore Monticello’s kitchen gardens.

Cultivating National Goals

The General Federation of Women’s Clubs (1890) encouraged women’s groups to join together to amplify their voices to improve local communities and effect national policy. Mary Belle King Sherman served as chairman of GFWC’s Conservation Committee from 1914-1920 where she positioned GFWC as a strong advocate of establishing a national park system. In 1915, she represented GFWC at the dedication of Rocky Mountain National Park near her home, and in 1916, she advocated for the GFWC resolution supporting the National Park Service Bill, leading to her nickname as the “National Park Lady”. By the end of her service as Conservation chairman, she had helped guide the formation of six national parks.

Lady Bird JohnsonThe National Roadside Council under Elizabeth Lawton emerged in the 1920s took on the Outdoor Advertising Council to combat the “roadside blight” that sprang up along with national road systems connected to rising use of the automobile. Lawton adamantly asserted that “beauty and the billboard cannot exist on the same landscape.” She built up a series of state and regional councils composed primarily of women who lobbied against the proliferation of billboards, much to the chagrin of the male-dominated Outdoor Advertising Association of America. She and her husband photographically documented the roadside landscape to demonstrate roadside blight and advocated for legislation to regulate advertising. A few decades later, Lady Bird Johnson took up their cause by lobbying for passage of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965.

Shaping a New Landscape

Working together, women in garden clubs and beautification societies made an indelible mark on the American landscape. They looked beyond the envelope of historic buildings, recognizing that the historic landscapes, gardens, and view sheds were important resources to preserve for future generations. Their efforts led to more beautiful highways, increased recreational opportunities, and established conservation as a national priority. Their legacy endures in the public spaces all around us.


By Elizabeth L. Maurer, Director of Program

Rachel Carson, Inspiring Earth Day

April 16th, 2017

Rachel Carson’s writings helped spark the global environmental movement which would eventually lead to the establishment of Earth Day. Her most famous work Silent Spring brought to life the negative effects pesticides have on the planet. Carson also precited increased consequence caused by prolong use of pesticides. In 1963 CBS TV aired a special on Silent Spring, bringing national and international awareness to this issue.

Watch Carson’s one-minute history:

Playing a Role – Silent Film Actresses and their Most Popular Characters

April 6th, 2017

Actresses played a crucial role in shaping the development of early film as well as Hollywood and the studio system. More popular than their male counterparts, early female stars helped make Hollywood a booming commercial venture. Actresses parlayed this popularity into greater control of their roles, as well as what happened behind the scenes. Before the advent of the Hays Code in 1934, they also sought out challenging and dynamic roles that gave women agency and challenged accepted norms just as often as they conformed to what might be viewed as proper feminine roles. As a result, early Hollywood had a dynamic where actresses had room to explore the many different ways women might be depicted on film.

Signing Up to Be a Star

From Nickelodeons to full-length feature films and from silent films to talkies, as writers, directors, actors, and audience members, women influenced the trajectory of the film industry. Female stardom was an essential component of its rise, though many of these women were celebrated more for their appearances than for their acting ability. While some female achieved legendary status, the roles they played often reinforced traditional gender stereotypes. That story is the familiar one. As movies became popular, audiences sought out favorite actors, leading studio executives to conclude that profits could be increased by promoting certain ‘stars’. The development of the star system led many actresses to be typecast.

Mary Pickford. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.
Mary Pickford. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

‘Pardon me,’ she blushed. And then she blushed again. – The Ingénue

Feature films starring heroines enjoyed tremendous popularity. Perhaps the most famous star of the early era—and one of the largest box offices draws in films history—was Mary Pickford. Pickford was among the first women to star on film, getting her start at Biograph studios with D.W. Griffith, the director who would make her famous. She developed a distinctive look, wide eyed with long, blond sausage curls. While she played a variety of roles, there was always an air of innocence to them. Pickford defined the ingénue archetype.

The ingénue was an endearingly innocent and wholesome girl or young woman. She depended on the men in her life to rescue from her from physical or emotional danger, and the stories often ended with the hero and heroine falling in love. The ingénue served as a foil to all of the other female archetypes, who were less domestic and stepped outside of traditional feminine roles. As film evolved, so did the range of characters audiences demanded and women played.

Oh no, tied to the train tracks again! – The Heroine

Pearl White. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.
Pearl White. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

In direct contrast to the ingénue was as the heroine, a woman who faced down danger with resilience and

determination. Serials were recurring films that featured the same character moving through a continuing storyline. Serials popularized the cliffhanger, hoping to lure audience members back to the theater for the next installment. Young working women, who made up a substantial portion of the turn-of-the-century female audience, empathized with heroines who were often like themselves: young women cast adrift from their families, navigating the new industrial and urban landscape.

The most popular serial was The Perils of Pauline starring Pearl White, which ran for twenty episodes in 1914. White did many of her own stunts. One of her most famous perilous situations was being tied to the tracks in front of an oncoming train: a plot device subsequently recreated (and made fun of) in many films. The character of Pauline perfectly typifies the serial heroine. She was a plucky young woman freed from conventional family relationships using her unrivaled strength, bravado, and intelligence to navigate various crises.

Though the serials implied that only women without familial ties could move through the urban world, they also provided examples of women eventually achieving the domestic ideal despite their supposedly unorthodox adventures. Serial heroines always eventually ended their adventures by surrendering their freedom to marriage or a return to family. These heroines, therefore, modeled the traits necessary for young working women to survive in the new working world of the city, but they also demonstrated that a woman’s main goal remained finding a husband and settling down.

Not a Dumb Dora, but the cat’s pajamas. – The Flapper

Clara Bow. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.
Clara Bow. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Sweet ingénues faded in popularity in the mid-1920s eclipsed by the flapper character. One of the most memorable film heroines of the 1920s was not a virginal innocent but the flapper or “It” girl. The flapper was the antithesis of the Victorian ideal of a quiet, demure woman bound to the home and the domestic ideal. She was a modern, young, urban woman who had a career, socialized in public, and wore short hair and dresses that de-accentuated her curves. She was also sexually open—though her new, modern sexuality would end in tragedy if she did not eventually find a husband.

Clara Bow, who became an actress after winning a magazine contest, came to typify the flapper role. The film It (1927), which starred Bow, memorably depicted the flapper, establishing the stereotype in America’s cultural psyche. Scenario writer Elinor Glyn wrote the film It, which was based on an article Glyn wrote for Cosmopolitan about the qualities of a modern woman. Glyn described “it” as “that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With ‘IT’ you win all men if you are a woman—all women if you are a man. ‘IT’ can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.” The image of the “It Girl” came to be closely associated with that of the flapper—sexually liberated, defiantly modern, and independent. The character, an iteration of the 1920s “New Woman” became a national obsession.

A bad girl with a worse reputation. – The Vamp

Anna May Wong. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.
Anna May Wong. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

While the flapper represented a new, more open portrayal of female sexuality, another female stereotype, the vamp, brought the image of a sexually aggressive woman to the screen. Short for vampire, the vamp was exotic, luxurious, and escapist, epitomizing the excess of the Roaring Twenties. Her suggestive clothing and sexual allure carried the connotation that she was a man-eater, who aimed at trapping and tricking men, using them instead of loving them, or generally destroying their lives. Theda Bara was the most famous vamp in the nineteen teens. Though Bara was one of the first women to exude sexuality and exoticism on film, the vamp took many forms by the 1920s.

Edgier than the flapper, the vamp conveyed mystery. The role created opportunities for actors of ‘exotic’ backgrounds—by 1920s standards—to break into film. The ideal of white femininity limited roles for women of color in early film. The vamp archetype built on racist stereotypes about the hyper-sexuality of women of color, but it also represented one of the few types of roles open to non-white women. Though playing the vamp, some actresses managed to gain fame and acclaim even within the limitations of Hollywood and society’s racism.

The most famous Asian American actress of the 1920s was Chinese American Anna May Wong. Wong’s first big role was as Lotus Flower in The Toll of the Sea (1922) in which she falls in love with an English man and ends by committing suicide when the love affair goes bad. Suicide was often the answer for interracial love affairs, and usually the non-Caucasian woman was the one who suffered for the forbidden love affair. One of Wong’s most famous roles was her portrayal of the devious “Mongol slave” who betrays her mistress in The Thief of Bagdad (1924) with Douglas Fairbanks. This role was the quintessential exotic villain role, the exotic other that is not to be trusted.

Playing a Role in Popular Culture

By the early 1930s, American culture and the film industry were inextricably linked. While most industries struggled during the Great Depression, Hollywood boomed. Americans turned to movies to escape from the hardships of their lives into the imaginary worlds of beautiful people, slapstick comedy, and happy endings. Women would continue to be at the center of this story; new stars, like Katharine Hepburn, emerged to once again challenge the feminine ideal, and women of color would fight to overcome racial stereotypes and the limited roles available to them. Just like today, the film industry during the first part of the 20th century reinforced gender divisions; with men occupying most of the positions as directors and producers, female actresses were often cast in roles and publicized in ways that reduced them to feminine stereotypes.

And yet, women were very much at the center of the industry’s evolution. The growing independence of white middle-class women and their increasing power as American consumers profoundly influenced the film industry’s direction. The celebrity achieved by many of the leading ladies created a new opportunity for women to be front-and-center and acknowledged not only for their looks but also for their craft. Progress is gradual, and while Hollywood still faces many injustices—leading men are still paid more than leading women, actresses continue to be judged and revered on the basis of their looks, and there are still more men than women behind the camera—women have been and continue to be involved in all aspects of the American film industry.

Excerpted from the online exhibit “Women in Early Film,” curated by Dr. Alison Landsberg, Professor of History and Art History, George Mason University and written by Claire Love and Jen Pollack. All images courtesy Library of Congress.


Further Reading:

  • Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffen, America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004)
  • Shelley Stamp, Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture After the Nickelodeon (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000)
  • Dawn B. Sova, Women in Hollywood: From Vamp to Studio Head (New York: Fromm International, 1998)
  • Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1989)
  • Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legen. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)

Take our “Which Silent Film Star are You?” quiz!

Starring America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford

April 6th, 2017

Mary Pickford became one of Hollywood’s most powerful executives during its formative years. She entered acting at age six, first in Vaudeville and then in 1909 transitioned to film. Her popularity and shrewd business sense led to her record-setting salaries. In 1919, Pickford co-founded United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin to distribute films they produced, giving them artistic control and a large share of profits. Pickford spearheaded the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and received a Best Actress Oscar in 1929.

Watch Pickford’s one-minute history

Which Silent Film Star Are You?

April 6th, 2017

To read more about women in early film visit the National Women’s History Museum’s online exhibit Women in Early Film.

Statement by Joan Wages, President and CEO National Women’s History Museum On the Introduction of H.R. 19 the Smithsonian Women’s History Museum Act

April 3rd, 2017


April 3, 2017

Contact: Shanna Duncan, 703.209.8742, or Chris Lisi, 202.549.0696



Statement by Joan Wages, President and CEO
National Women’s History Museum
On the Introduction of H.R. 19 the Smithsonian Women’s History Museum Act


Alexandria, Va. -“For more than 20 years the National Women’s History Museum has worked with members of Congress to designate a site to build a women’s history museum on the National Mall. The introduction of H.R. 19, the Smithsonian Women’s History Museum Act, is a positive step forward. We greatly appreciate Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s (D-NY) and Rep. Ed Royce’s (R-CA) leadership in introducing legislation that would make the Museum a reality.

“We believe our country deserves a Museum that educates, inspires, empowers and shapes the future by integrating women’s distinctive contributions into our culture and history.   We support a strong public-private partnership that ensures the Museum takes its place among the other great museums in Washington, D.C.

“We look forward to continuing to work with Reps. Maloney and Royce, the appropriate Committee Members, our 55,000 members and all of our stakeholders to move it to passage in Congress.”





Social Marketing Before the Networks Were Online

March 22nd, 2017


How often have you been invited to a friend’s house for a fun “social” event where you knew that you were going to be asked to buy something like makeup, jewelry, or cookware? Did you know that women have been using their social networks to sell products for more than 130 years?

Distrust of a sales pitch is as old as the barter system. Advertising, aggressive techniques, and wild product claims heightened cynicism as America entered the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century. The radical solution to building consumer trust turned out to be recruiting women as sales agents. But not in traditional retail settings.

Shopping for Home and Shopping for a Job

The 19th century’s wide-spread growth of factories changed shopping and consuming. Machinery operated with low-skill and therefore low-wage labor made it cheaper to buy rather than make household consumables like soap, candles, canned foods, and men’s clothing. Department stores catering to every socioeconomic level marketed the convenience of one-stop shopping. Job opportunities for sales people proliferated, and both men and women were recruited to positions as retail clerks.

Credit: Library of Congress. Champion American Soap Powder.
Credit: Library of Congress. Champion American Soap Powder.

Women embraced opportunities to enter the workforce. The shift from making at home to buying in a store freed up women’s time while it intensified the need to generate real income to buy stuff. Declining birthrates led to more women entering the paid labor force even while traditional attitudes limited their professional opportunities. Many women wanted jobs that would allow them to balance work with their wife and mother roles.

The combination of a new consumer culture and more women seeking paid employment propelled a new retail sales approach built on women’s social networks.

Selling Trust One Woman at a Time

Shopping may have been a necessary activity in an increasingly consumer-oriented culture, but buying could be fraught. City dwellers easily accessed retail stores, and mail order catalogs made a wealth of manufactured goods available to all. Traveling or door-to-door salesmen brought retail to millions of American front doors, especially in rural areas. While scores of 19tt-century companies profited on direct sales, the traveling salesman stereotype became synonymous with a charlatan or huckster peddling inferior goods. Americans did not view direct sales as a particularly ladylike profession. One company changed that starting in 1886.

The California Perfume Company was born in 1886 after former traveling salesman David H. McConnell purchased a share of the Union Publishing Company. Noticing that his female customers showed more interest in the perfume sample giveaways than the books and magazines he sold, he changed the company’s product and name. McConnell recruited the recently widowed Persus Foster Eames Albee as a sales agent for his new product line. Albee had been one of Union Publishing Company’s most successful sales agents. McConnell gave her an exclusive territory where she used her outgoing personality and social connections to develop a customer base for perfumes and beauty products.

Credit: National Women’s History Museum. Avon perfume bottle ca. 1973.


Albee helped McConnell to develop a network of female sales agents that she managed as a General Agent. The company actively recruited middle-class, married women as sales agents, pitching the opportunity as a flexible job that allowed them to earn income without disrupting family life. In 1910, married women accounted for 62% of sales staff. McConnell and Albee deliberately feminized the direct sales model to take advantage of women’s reciprocal social obligations. The California Perfume Company officially changed its name to Avon in 1939, and by then its sales force stood at more than 29,000 women.

Hundreds of other companies took note, particularly those targeting female consumers. Annie Turnbo Malone and Madame C.J. Walker each developed hair care product companies in the early 20th century that marketed towards African American women. Malone and Walker faced challenges in convincing drugstores and other retail outlets to stock their products. Both women turned to direct sales. They traveled the country demonstrating products while recruiting and training women agent-operators. Walker paid bonuses to her sales agents to recruit new saleswomen, the precursor to the multi-level sales model. Success stories of women who had quit day jobs to earn more money as full time sales agents stimulated recruitment.

Turning Retail Sales into a Party

The Great Depression’s plummeting economy threw millions out of work, and thousands of unemployed turned to direct sales to make ends meet. The increase in door-to-door selling and rising homeowner complaints led many municipalities to crack down on door-to-door selling. Direct sales moved indoors, and women became even more integral to its success.

Stanley Home Products, co-founded by Frank Stanley Beveridge and Catherine O’Brien, became famous in the 1930s for its “Hostess Parties”. The practice of in-home product demonstrations started in the 1920s with Fuller Brush and WearEver Aluminum, companies that marketed to women. Stanley salesman Norman Squires formalized the party marketing plan and introduced “hostess” gifts of Stanley products to reward women who gathered friends for demonstrations.

Around this time, entrepreneur-inventor Earl Tupper perfected a process for turning polyethylene slag—a by-product of oil refining—into a clean, translucent plastic. He named his product and company Tupperware and launched a line of kitchen plastics in 1946. Tupper’s products gathered dust on hardware and department store shelves. Even a full-color feature in House Beautiful and a museum exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1947 failed to move his product.

There was one channel where Tupperware thrived. Tupperware sold wholesale lots directly to individual distributors for resale. Several turned out to be Stanley Home Products agents supplementing their stock. Tupper discovered that the highest-grossing distributors touted Tupperware as an ideal party demonstration product. In fact, the air-expelling “burb” signaling a tight seal enjoyed its own long-standing pop culture moment. Tupper hired top independent distributor and Stanley Home Products alumna, Brownie Wise, in 1951 to set up a system making home parties on the Hostess plan the exclusive distribution channel for Tupperware.

Credit: Smithsonian Institute. Brownie Wise.



Wise set out to integrate Tupperware into American culture. She understood the psychology of her target consumer: young housewives moving into postwar, suburban housing developments. While inventions like the electric vacuum, washing machine, and refrigerator, made housework easier, they escalated housewives’ social isolation. In an era before modern conveniences, teams of women–including servants—operated middle and upper-class households. The miracle of technology enabled one woman to maintain a house. Tupperware parties brought suburban women together in a social setting complete with refreshments, games, and unstructured social time. The demonstration was part of the fun. Tupperware’s line included a range of specialized party and serving pieces. It fit in with the mid-century changing emphasis on women’s roles as hostesses rather than merely housewives. A Tupperware party was social as well as social marketing.

Wise’s true innovation was not the home party model, which she improved rather than invented. Rather it was the way she organized sales teams. As a Stanley dealer, she managed a team of ten other women. At Tupperware, she introduced the multi-level sales team. She incentivized dealers to recruit new sales people below them. In the pyramid model, sales directors at the top of the structure received commissions based on the team members’ sale below them. Women’s social networks proved equally effective in expanding Tupperware’s sales teams.

Working for Family

Just as hundreds of companies followed Avon’s model, so did many more copy Tupperware. Today, women’s sales activities continue strong. According to the Direct Selling Association, 20.2 million Americans were involved in direct selling in 2015. Their estimated retail sales reached $36.12 billion, a 4.8% increase from 2014. Women made up 77% of the sales force, and 20% of sales occurred at home parties.

Pioneered by Avon and built upon by a succession of women-focused businesses, direct selling companies feminized sales by employing women to market to other women. Women agents have used their networks and reciprocal social obligations to build an industry. It evolved with the needs of women in mind, both as customers and employees. Meeting family obligations while bringing in necessary household income was an inducement for women taking sales jobs at the beginning of the 20th century. Flexibility and a work-life balance were cited as a motivating factor for entering direct sales by 65% of sales people in a 2015 industry survey. While the products may (or may not change), the motivations stay the same.


By Elizabeth L. Maurer, Director of Program


Recommend Readings

  • Clarke, Alison J. 2014. Tupperware: the promise of plastic in 1950s america. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books.
  • “Industry Fact Sheets.” Direct Selling Association. Accessed March 22, 2017.
  • Kessler-Harris, Alice. 2003. Out to work: a history of wage-earning women in the United States. Oxford [u.a.]: Oxford University Press.
  • Lamoreaux, Tiffany. “Home is where the work is: women, direct sales, and technologies of gender.” PhD diss., ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY, 2013.
  • Peiss, Kathy Lee. 2012. Hope in a jar: the making of America’s beauty culture. Philadelphia, Pa: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • “Stanley Home Products: 75 Years of Excellence and a Place in Direct Selling History.” Marketwire. Accessed March 22, 2017.

A Conversation with Toni Ko

March 22nd, 2017


Toni Ko HeadshotToni Ko is a serial entrepreneur with a proven track record in developing, launching, and building highly successful global brands. Ko is most often recognized as Founder of the multi-million dollar brand NYX Cosmetics, which she sold to L’Oreal, the largest beauty brand in the world. In April 2016, Ko proudly launched her second company, PERVERSE Sunglasses, after she recognized a gap in the accessories market between the prestige sunglass brands sold in department stores and the mass brands sold in retail stores. She designed the PERVERSE collection for those with style and substance, and offers hundreds of fashion-forward styles at an affordable price. The brand has seen incredible success within its first year, and has been seen on A-list celebrities such as Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and Jessica Alba. Ko’s sunglasses are sold in more than 125 stores nationwide.

Last September, the National Women’s History Museum honored Ko for her leadership in business. Recently, we sat down with her for a discussion about her success, tips for future entrepreneurs and inspiring future generations of women.

What inspired you to start your own business- especially at such a young age?

I started working for the family business when I was a teenager, so by the time I reached my 20’s I was ready to roll the dice on my own. I noticed a huge gap in the market between the super prestigious cosmetics brands and the budget-friendly brands, and I wanted to launch a brand that delivered both. I created NYX with the look and quality of a prestigious brand, married with the affordability of the budget brands.

Who do you consider your role model in business?

My mom.  She taught me the three most important qualities in life: to work hard, to be honest, and to remain humble. These are the simplest and most pure of qualities, yet the most effective and powerful. I will always treasure those messages.

Do you think there are particular qualities women have that men don’t that work towards their advantage in business?

Definitely!  It has been proven time after time that women are more compassionate than men, and this is a huge advantage in today’s world. The new generation is less concerned with inexpensive items vs. over-priced designer tags. Rather, they want to buy products from companies with a greater purpose. Showing compassion towards mankind and our environment is definitely a plus to the modern business model.

What advice do you have for women in business, especially those who want to start their own business?

I love the quote, “Well behaved women seldom make history.” Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion and speak up about what matters to you. Of course you don’t want to be disrespectful or rude, but it’s important to make yourself heard.

How do you think a National Women’s History Museum can inspire future generations of women business leaders?

It is imperative for women to be inspired and inspire others. A National Women’s History Museum will display the opportunities and successes that one might think do not exist for women. A museum will feature women from all walks of life, with the goal to blend gender bias and show our future generation that men and women are truly equal in all aspects of life and our abilities.

Is there anything else you would like to add for our readers?

When it comes to women and leadership, it’s going to take a while for society to catch up.  My hope for real change lies within the next generation. I recently read an article that the daughters who grew up with a working mother made more money later in their careers than those whose mothers did not work. I can personally identity with this statement because I grew up with a working mother. It was only 45 years ago when a woman could not acquire a credit card without her husband’s signature. In less than 50 years, 40% of women are now the sole or primary breadwinners for their families, which quadrupled since the 1960s. We have certainly come a long way, but we still have a very long way to go. It’s our job to be the role models for the next generation of female leaders. It’s our job to create many different definitions of success. It’s our job to support other women.

Honoring Rosie the Riveter and the Women Who Won the War

March 20th, 2017
"We Can Do It!" by J. Howard Miller, US Government Work
“We Can Do It!” by J. Howard Miller, US Government Work

Before World War II, the prevailing view of a woman’s role was that of wife and mother.  Many occupations divided jobs into “men’s” and “women’s”, a practice reinforced by separate help wanted advertisements. However, the need to mobilize the entire population behind the war effort was so compelling that political and social leaders agreed that both women and men would have to change their perceptions of gender roles—at least during a national emergency.  Women were recruited to contribute in variety of ways.

“It’s a Woman’s War Too!” Women Join the Military

After US entry into World War II, Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers introduced a bill creating the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. The WAAC measure allowed up to 150,000 women to volunteer for military service. The armed forces launched crash recruiting drives including rallies, national advertising campaigns, community outreach programs, and appeals to college students.

In 1942, a new law granted women official military status in the Army. Soon after, women joined other uniformed services including the Navy (WAVEs), Air Force (WASPs), and Coast Guard (SPARs).

Are you a girl with star-spangled heart?--Join the WAC now!--Thousands of Army jobs need filling! Library of Congress
Are you a girl with star-spangled heart?–Join the WAC now!–Thousands of Army jobs need filling! Library of Congress

War Department publicists produced posters and subway cards that portrayed women in uniform as glamorous. The National Advertising Council promised that stories and advertisements for consumer products would promote enlistment in the military and volunteerism at home.

“The Girl He Left Behind is Still Behind Him” – Patriotic Labor Force

The country had to keep functioning even as millions of men who performed critical functions in the economy were drafted. The departing men left openings in offices and factories across the country at a time when private industry needed to increase industrial production to meet the demand for war materials. Government encouraged private employers to recruit women to open positions and women to accept them. Women responded to calls to keep Americans fed, moving, and communicating.

To help overcome opposition to women in “men’s” jobs, campaigns to recruit women workers stressed that production work called for domestic skills. If a woman could sew, she could rivet.  If she could put together a pie, she could work on assembly line. Public relations campaigns  — even children’s toys — emphasized patriotism, encouraging women to enter the workforce so their husbands, brothers, sons, and fathers could return home sooner.

Women came from all over the country to work in the assembly lines of defense production plants that were converted or built to mass produce ever more sophisticated armaments. Women worked six days a week, enjoyed only a handful of holidays, and were pressed to take overtime to keep the assembly lines operating around the clock. Women who entered war production were primarily working-class wives, widows, divorcees, and students who needed the money. Wages in munitions plants and aircraft factories averaged more than those for traditional female jobs.  Women abandoned traditional jobs, particularly domestic service, to work in war production plants offering 40 percent higher wages.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

With the help of women workers, total industrial production doubled between 1939 and 1945. The military production was astounding: 300,000 aircraft, 12,000 ships, 86,000 tanks, and 64,000 landing craft in addition to millions of artillery pieces and small weapons.

Women not only took factory jobs, in the cities they took traditionally male jobs such as transit workers and taxi drivers. Women were hired to drive trucks and deliver mail. Professional and technical jobs in radio and journalism, the dominant communications media of the day, opened up to women.

"I've found the job where I fit best!" find your war job in industry, agriculture, business.” Library of Congress
“I’ve found the job where I fit best!” find your war job in industry, agriculture, business.” Library of Congress

All around the country women stepped into government jobs vacated by men. More than a million women, many of them young and single, came to Washington D.C. where they became known as “government girls”. As more men were deployed overseas, women — both military and civilian –were admitted into professional classifications previously reserved exclusively for men. By 1944, women accounted for more than a third of civil service jobs. Clerical work was a typical female job in the War Department, and women moved mountains of paper during the war.

“Keeping the Home Fires Burning” Service on the Home Front

Housework and voluntary activities continued to occupy most married women, but these women were not idle. American women had a long history of volunteer civic activism. Women’s organizations provided a nationwide network that mobilized millions of women to implement a wide range of local projects. Women tirelessly gave their time and money with little or no public recognition.

A large number of women’s auxiliary organizations formed spontaneously to volunteer services to the military and civilian civil defense organizations. Members of the largest, American Women’s Voluntary Services, were trained to drive ambulances, fight fires, and provide emergency medical aid in anticipation of aerial bombings that never materialized. Other volunteer military auxiliary groups organized locally.

“Train to be a nurse's aide Phone your boro Civilian Defense Volunteer Office.” Library of Congress
“Train to be a nurse’s aide Phone your boro Civilian Defense Volunteer Office.” Library of Congress

The Women’s Land Army was organized to deploy volunteers to work on farms and pick crops.  Over a million women and girls participated, although wages were low and they had to pay for their room and board.

Almost 100,000 women throughout the country served as unpaid assistants to local rationing boards that distributed coupons based on individual evaluations of need.

Women were encouraged to grow food in Victory gardens and preserve their home-grown vegetables.  In 1944, 21 million families planted 7 million acres that yielded 8 million tons of vegetables. Victory Gardens were the answer to concerns about food shortages and the Department of Agriculture promoted growing vegetables.

Women played a prominent role in promoting the sale of war bonds to fund defense production. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs “Buy a Bomber” campaign funded production of 431 planes.

Women contributed thousands of hours to supporting the troops by setting up canteens and rest areas, writing letters, serving as hospital volunteers, and hosting events at military bases.

After the War

The expectation at the end of the war was that things would go back to “normal’’. Women would be homemakers or revert to traditional female job occupations. And this was true for many women. Thousands of women who would have liked to keep their jobs lost them to returning veterans. But thousands more voluntarily left the workforce to become wives and start families. The marriage rate increased as thousands of couples made up for lost time.

World War II brought significant, lasting changes. Women engaged in traditionally male jobs, and it became more acceptable for married women to work—though not married mothers. Between 1940 and 1945, the female labor force grew to 19 million, more than a third of the American civilian labor force. After the war, women continued to work outside the home.  By 1950, women comprised 29 percent of the workforce in the United States.

For many women, World War II brought not only sacrifices, but also new jobs, new skills, and new opportunities.  America’s “secret weapon” was the women who voluntarily mobilized to meet every challenge. U.S. government and industry expanded dramatically to meet the wartime needs. Women made it possible.

Adapted from “Partners in Winning the War: American Women in World War II.”

To see more images of women’s roles during World War II, click here: