The Real Duncan Hines—The Man, Not the Cake Mix

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena uses old newspapers and other online resources to learn more about Duncan Hines—whose real-life accomplishments were so much more than just getting his name onto boxes of cake mix.

When you hear the words “Duncan Hines” you may visualize a homemade cake. Today, most people recognize the Duncan Hines name as one gracing the front of cake mix boxes, but Duncan Hines was a real person who had an interesting foray into the food and hospitality businesses.

photo of a box of Duncan Hines cake mix

Photo: Mixer and box of Duncan Hines cake mix. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.

In today’s world if you want a recommendation for a hotel or a restaurant you look for a website. Prior to the Internet you most likely used a guide from an organization like AAA (the American Automobile Association) to choose where to stay on a vacation or work-related trip. But whom did your family rely on for such advice in the mid-20th century?

The Traveling Foodie

Duncan Hines didn’t start out to become an everyday name associated with food and lodging. He didn’t even start out working in the food industry. Duncan Hines (1880-1959) was a traveling salesman for a printer who, as he racked up miles crossing the country for his work, ate at lots of restaurants. In 1935 he shared his recommendations in a Christmas card and quite by accident stumbled upon a new venture.*

That Christmas card eventually became a business. The Duncan Hines brand was not unlike the multiproduct brand names we see in the food industry today. Products associated with famous chefs or homemaking experts like Rachel Ray or Martha Stewart follow in Hines’s footsteps. His coveted reviews of restaurants expanded to hotels—he even rented out signs that proclaimed an establishment recommended by him. Eventually his name graced a multitude of food products including the well-known cake mixes of today.

Hine’s Ratings & Recommendations Books

Adventures in Good Eating, his multi-edition book of restaurant recommendations, blossomed into regular newspaper columns that included recipes from restaurants he had reviewed.

Duncan Hines: Adventures in Good Eating, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 24 August 1948

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 24 August 1948, page 9

The success of Adventures in Good Eating led to Hines’s hotel guide entitled Lodging for a Night (digitized on Internet Archive at http://archive.org/stream/lodgingfornight00hinerich#page/n5/mode/2up).

There is no doubt that Hines became a celebrity in his own right. Lodging for a Night includes a warning that “a surprising number” of imposters who claim to be his family had been known to ask for free food and lodging. Hines warns proprietors to refuse such offers (pg. xiv).

photo of the cover of the Duncan Hines book "Lodging for a Night"

Photo: Book cover of Lodging for a Night by Duncan Hines. Credit: Internet Archive.

Hines’s descriptions of hotels are reminiscent of conversing with a good friend. He not only provides some of the basic information a traveler would need but also includes comments about the proprietors—like in the listing for the Sutter Hotel in Yuba City, California. Hines writes: “If you want to see what a man with brains can do with a hotel that 2 year ago was not any too good, drop in and meet Mr. Hass” (p. 61). In his write-up of the Oak Creek Lodge in Flagstaff, Arizona, Hines reports that the owners are Carl and Ethel Meyhew, along with their son and daughter (p. 19).

Duncan Hines was a well-respected figure, and that respect led him to lecture on food issues (such as warning against eating a poor breakfast), as seen in this 1954 article from a Texas newspaper.

Duncan Hines Warns about Poor Breakfasts, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 8 October 1954

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 8 October 1954, page 2

At one time the Duncan Hines name was on a multitude of products, everything from ice cream to baking mixes to hams. For a man who was once a traveling salesman, his Christmas card idea turned into an industry that Americans are still familiar with today.

photo of an ad for Duncan Hines smoked hams

Photo: Duncan Hines ad for smoked hams. Credit: Internet Archive.

Dig into the online archives now to learn more about the life of Duncan Hines, read more of his restaurant reviews in Adventures in Good Eating in the newspaper, and more.

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* Duncan Hines. He is the traveler’s authority on where to eat by Phyllis Larsh. Life. 8 July 1946. Page 16-17. Available at http://books.google.com/books?id=JEoEAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PP1&dq=Duncan%20hines%20life%20magazine&pg=PA16#v=onepage&q=Duncan%20hines&f=false.

My Ancestor’s Menu: Researching Food History in Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena searches through historical newspaper archives and finds old menus—and shows how these provide social history that helps us better understand our ancestors’ times.

When was the last time you ate out? How often did you eat out as a child? While for some of us eating in a restaurant was a rare treat growing up because of where we lived or finances, eating out in today’s world is a more common occurrence. For modern families whose time is overscheduled, sitting down to a meal that mom prepared (with love) can seem like something out of the 1950s. Increasingly we are relying on restaurants to help with our cooking chores. Although it can seem like going out to eat is more of a recent phenomenon, the truth is that our ancestors, depending on circumstance, may have enjoyed a meal out once in a while.

Probably not surprisingly, restaurants originated in France in the 18th century and catered to upper class patrons. Early Americans, typically men, had the opportunity to “eat out” as they traveled and stayed in taverns and inns. One restaurant that opened in the early 19th century and still exists today is the New York institution Delmonico’s, which originally opened in 1827 as a pastry shop. Early customers of Delmonico’s were treated to a vast selection of foods; its 1838 menu was 11 pages in length and included French dishes with their English translations.

Gossip from Gotham: Delmonico's--The Most Fashionable Restaurant of the Continent, San Francisco Bulletin newspaper article, 19 January 1884

San Francisco Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 19 January 1884, page 4

One surprising aspect of researching ancestral food history in newspapers is that your assumptions may be proved wrong. A good example of this can be found in this 1898 newspaper article. It reports on Thanksgiving being served at local Cleveland (Ohio) hotels. Today, some families would never think of going to a restaurant for Thanksgiving, labeling it “untraditional”—and you might assume our ancestors felt that way, too. However, judging from this article it seems that eating Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant was something many of our ancestors did. This article states that “Hundreds of guests were entertained by the hostelries yesterday, for many Clevelanders preferred to dine down town rather than at their own homes.” The article goes on to provide names of those who dined at those hotels. What a great genealogical find to see the name of an ancestor and where they were eating on Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving at the Hotels, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 November 1898

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 November 1898, page 10

Restaurant menus found in newspapers show the types of food available to your ancestors. In this example of a 1909 Sunday dinner menu from South Dakota, 25 cents buys quite a meal!

Sunday Dinner at the Model Restaurant, Aberdeen American newspaper article 18 April 1909

Aberdeen American (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 18 April 1909, page 5

This 1903 Sunday dinner menu from Wichita, Kansas, costs 20 cents and includes dishes such as Irish Stew and Prime Beef.

Menu at the People's Restaurant, Colored Citizen newspaper article 31 October 1903

Colored Citizen (Wichita, Kansas), 31 October 1903, page 3

One great aspect of newspaper research is the reminder that fads can and do make comebacks. Case in point: calories printed on menus. Think that the printing of calories is a new idea to get all of us to make healthier food choices? Consider this article about the appearance of calories on menus—in 1918! Makes you wonder why the reporting of calories eventually fell out of favor. My guess is people want to enjoy their meal out without guilt.

Aha! A New One--Restaurants Put Calories Count on Menu, Times-Picayune newspaper article 12 May 1918

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 12 May 1918, page 9

Although today we are familiar with calories and how much is too much, the idea of watching your calories was a new one at the beginning of the 20th century. This article concludes with suggested total amounts of calories needed for different types of people, including laundresses who needed 3000 calories versus a secretary who needed just 2000.

Newspapers provide researchers with rich social history and help us better understand our ancestors’ times. Take an afternoon and peruse the food history printed in the newspaper of your ancestors’ hometown. You just might be surprised at what you find.