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“America’s First Lady of Food”: Adelaide Hawley as Betty Crocker

Adelaide Hawley in a 1944 issue of Broadcasting, promoting her radio show on NBC. Media History Digital Library.

At the start of Women’s History Month, we featured a post about long-time radio host and producer Mary Margaret McBride. Today’s post features another interesting figure in women’s broadcasting history—the fictional advertising persona Betty Crocker—and the woman who portrayed her on radio and television in the 1950s and 1960s. Betty Crocker is the iconic figure behind the General Mills brand, a model of the modern homemaker and unselfish sales personality. Adelaide Hawley was a long-time portrayer of Betty Crocker, as well as a radio and television host and fashion commentator in her own right. Coming from a career in vaudeville, with musical training from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, Hawley became a popular radio, television, and newsreel host, as well as General Mills’ “First Lady of Food.”

Hired by General Mills in 1949, Hawley held the role from the 1950s into the early 1960s, when the company dropped her portrayal of Betty Crocker. Betty Crocker appeared on The Betty Crocker Show and the Betty Crocker Star Matinee, which aired on CBS from 1950 to 1952, as well as on short radio programs, and radio and television commercials. Hawley was familiar with the world of broadcasting by the time she became Betty Crocker, having hosted her own radio program, the Adelaide Hawley Show, from 1937-1950. If you search SONIC, the Recorded Sound Section’s catalog that is specific to sound recordings, you’ll find a good run of the Adelaide Hawley Show from late 1943 to 1945. The program was broadcast on both NBC and CBS at various times during its stint on air.

A November 1943 issue of Broadcasting, a weekly radio news magazine, announces her program’s move to NBC’s WEAF station, lauding her ability to host and to weave plugs for sponsor products seamlessly into the show:

Study the woman. Listen to her show. It’s full of life and intelligence and contrast. A warm and human part of her programs are interviews with neighbors carefully chosen from the listening audience. And celebrity guests give the show flair and glitter. But the imparting of information and news useful to the housewife is the plan of it all. Whatever the day’s subject, it leads Adelaide Hawley—or rather, she leads it—to completely natural talk about the sponsors’ products.

Hawley’s success extended to television and newsreels as well as radio—she hosted and contributed to a number of radio, television, and newsreel programs before and during her time as Betty Crocker, including including a televised fashion program titled Fashions on Parade, broadcasts of a twice weekly MGM newsreel called News of the Day, the Fashion Follies radio program, as well as a television newsreel series called Women in the News. Two episodes of Women in the News, including one narrated by Hawley, are available in the National Screening Room. In addition to narrating Women in the News, Hawley also contributed to the editing of the newsreel.

Hawley and her first husband, Mark (who was also involved in television and newsreels, and was known as the voice of Pathe News), were charter members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, a broadcasting trade union which is now merged with the Screen Actors Guild.

Hawley and Betty Crocker in Sponsor

Betty Crocker and Adelaide Hawley in a 1954 issue of Sponsor. Media History Digital Library.

Hawley’s popular career in television and radio made her an ideal candidate for Betty Crocker, who was already a powerful advertising campaign in her own right. By the 1950s, Betty Crocker had been a public “figure” for some time, with numerous radio programs and popular cookbooks and recipes. Betty Crocker and General Mills worked closely with the National Recovery Administration, one of the central departments of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, during the Great Depression and into World War II to help homemakers to save money through new cooking practices and menu choices. Hawley as Betty Crocker became the ideal of integrating product advertisement with radio and television programming. A December 27, 1954 issue of Sponsor, a magazine for television and radio advertisers, describes the success of Betty Crocker on the radio as advertising for a number of General Mills products, including Gold Medal Flour, and Betty Crocker cookbooks and baking mixes. A script for a Betty Crocker short radio program is included in the article. Readers are advised to “note the functional character of copy; it delivers what program promises, a real service. Copy is tight, ‘loaded’ with useful information, yet easy to follow. … It is in keeping with Betty Crocker personality.”

When General Mills decided to drop Hawley’s portrayal of Betty Crocker in 1964, Hawley decided it was time to change careers. She earned a PhD in speech education from New York University and began to teach English as a second language to university students in Washington state. She remarried and became Adelaide Hawley Cumming, and taught until her death in 1998.

Throughout 2019, the Library of Congress is inviting visitors to Explore America’s Changemakers through a series of exhibitions, events, and programs. Changemakers are everywhere. Everyday citizens become trailblazers and history makers, shaping America and making life better. Come discover their stories with us, and be inspired to create new stories of your own. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ve been featuring some women Changemakers in the field of radio and television broadcasting. Both Hawley and her fictional Betty Crocker persona were active and popular figures in that world. This month, we remember their contributions to broadcasting and their legacy as icons of fashion and cooking for American women throughout the years.

Hawley’s radio programs can be heard in the Recorded Sound Research Center. Betty Crocker advertisements can be found in the television commercial collections of the Moving Image Section, and viewed in the Moving Image Research Center. Don’t hesitate to get in touch through Ask a Librarian if you have questions about moving image or recorded sound research at the Library of Congress.

 

Sources and further reading:

Castagna, JoAnn E. “Betty Crocker,” in Icons of American Cooking, Victor W. Geraci and Elizabeth S. Demers, eds. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

Associated Press. “Adelaide Hawley Cumming, 93, Television’s First Betty Crocker.” The New York Times, December 25, 1998.

Issues of broadcasting, advertising, and media trade magazines can be found in the Media History Digital Library:

 

One Comment

  1. Carl Fleischhauer
    April 3, 2019 at 8:43 am

    Nice blog! Great inside story of a person and activity that has now more or less disappeared from sight, but represented nicely in the Library’s collections. Thank you.

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