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In the United States, boxed cake mixes were a Depression-era invention of John D. Duff of P. Duff and Sons, a Pittsburgh molasses company. Duff was looking for a way to use up his company’s molasses surplus, so he dehydrated it and combined it with a mixture of flour, sugar, and dried egg. This mix allowed home cooks to make gingerbread by simply adding water to form a batter before baking. At the time, families were looking for a simple, inexpensive way to enjoy cake, and Duff’s invention fit the bill.
After World War II, cake mixes really took off. Big flour companies had spent the war concentrating on creating dry mixes for the troops, but the end of the war allowed flour companies to return their focus to busy consumers.
Several major companies began developing cake mixes. Betty Crocker—named after a fictional character who was created to respond to the thousands of baking questions the company had received from home cooks—began selling cake mixes in 1947. The following year, Pillsbury launched the first-ever chocolate cake mix. By 1951, Duncan Hines, Pillsbury, and Betty Crocker were all manufacturing cake mixes.
In the mid-1950s, boxed cake mix sales began to flatten. General Mills hired a psychologist and marketing specialist named Ernest Dichter who surveyed women in an attempt to understand this trend. His analysis found that women felt guilty for not contributing more. Dichter’s research caused companies to produce advertisements meant to persuade women to think of baking cakes from packaged mixes as merely one step in the process. Women were encouraged to decorate their cakes with frosting, and this proved to be an important turning point for cake mixes. In her book Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America (2005), food historian Laura Shapiro said, “This decorating obsession sold the idea that this way, you're making the cake yours.”
And they remain popular today: It's estimated that more than 186 million Americans used cake mix in 2020.
Photo Credits: Neil Baylis / Alamy Stock Photo and John Frost Newspapers / Alamy Stock Photo