Home Business and Labor Janette Kelley, The Woman Behind Betty Crocker, Buys a House in Norwell, Mass.

Janette Kelley, The Woman Behind Betty Crocker, Buys a House in Norwell, Mass.

Inventor of the chiffon cake

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Janette Kelley was one of the first women behind Betty Crocker. For a time she lived in Massachusetts in what is known as the Betty Crocker House.

The first Betty Crocker

The first Betty Crocker

Kelly worked as a home economist at the Washburn-Crosby Co., racking up an impressive list of accomplishments in the world of baking. She prepared the first bread-baking book for Gold Medal Flour. She made the first chocolate cake pictured in an illustrated ad. And it was Janette Kelley who invented the chiffon cake.

Several other women portrayed the fictional Betty Crocker on radio and television. Janette Kelley was one of six college-trained home economists who first personified Betty Crocker, both in print and in person.

Janette Kelley

She was born in Deer Lodge, Mont., and graduated from the Montana State College home economics department in 1917.

Janette Kelley in 1921 joined Washburn-Crosby, which made Gold Medal flour in a Minneapolis suburb. That was the year Gold Medal flour ran a promotion that gave a pincushion resembling a flour sack to customers who put together a jigsaw puzzle of a milling scene. Thousands responded with the puzzle and questions about baking. Washburn-Crosby created the name Betty Crocker to personalize answers. The company chose “Crocker” in honor of a director who recently retired, William Crocker. It chose “Betty” because it sounded friendly.

Kelley answered mailed-in questions about how to make the perfect pie crust or why bread didn’t rise. She offered solutions for such problems as the heartbreak of a cake that turned out a wee bit flat. The high quality of “kitchen tested” Gold Medal Flour solved that difficulty, she responded.

She also put on wildly popular Gold Medal Flour Cooking Demonstrations and Betty Crocker Cooking Schools, first in the Twin Cities, then throughout the Midwest.

The Betty Crocker House kitchen today

The Betty Crocker House kitchen today

Betty Crocker House

Food manufacturers at the time were setting up test kitchens to find better cooking methods. Washburn-Crosby had been operating a test kitchen since running water and gas stoves were considered a modern convenience. Janette Kelley helped set up the first test kitchen for Washburn-Crosby’s successor company, General Mills.

She then left Minneapolis for New York City, where she went to work for Lever Brothers, setting up their first test kitchen. She also ran a test kitchen for The Delineator magazine, a woman’s publication that featured Butterick sewing patterns along with work by Theodore Dreiser and L. Frank Baum.

The Betty Crocker House

The Betty Crocker House

Around that time in the late 1930s Janette Kelley bought an antique three-bedroom, two-bath Cape house in Norwell, Mass. According to the Billings Library, she worked for a Massachusetts branch of General Mills in the 1930s. The house, on 604 River Street, was built in 1681 and went on the market in 2016 for $675,000. {Click here for more pictures.) Zillow listed it as sold in 2020 for $635,000.

Big Red

A Betty Crocker test kitchen

A Betty Crocker test kitchen

In 1944, she returned to Minneapolis to set up five test kitchens for General Mills. She sold the Norwell house. Two years later she became director of the Home Services Department, supervising 50 women.

She ran the test kitchens when the company developed recipes for Betty Crocker’s Kitchen Cook Book — known as Big Red or the Kitchen Bible. The cookbook was an instant best seller after its release in 1950, and became a popular wedding gift. One ad for it proclaimed, “At last! A Betty Crocker Cook Book! Over $100,000 spent in testing and developing recipes before a single page was printed! Just off the press! Exciting, revolutionary, handsome! The result of 29 years’ experience by the Betty Crocker Staff of General Mills, in food, cooking and homemaking.”

Betty Crocker was the second most recognized woman in America in 1954, next to Eleanor Roosevelt.

Janette Kelley retired in 1958 because of ill health. She died shortly thereafter.

This story was updated in 2023.


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