When thinking of the 1920s, a certain image pops in to most of our heads. It usually involves cool girl flappers with their bobbed hair dancing the night away while drinking gin. Thoughts go to frivolity and decadence not of practicality and sensibility. Least of all does the mind go to the name Aunt Sammy but in the twenties and thirties, she was an important way for the government to get information to the women on rural farms or in remote small towns through the use of radio. She was a knowledgeable yet friendly voice that gave advice, hints and tips on all facets of day to day life but what she was most known for was her recipes. To top it all off, Aunt Sammy wasn’t even a real person. She was a created fictional character that was the work of three women writing the scripts and recipes plus the many more who lent their voices.
In the early 1920s with the establishment of broadcasting stations and the manufacturing of faster receiver sets, there was a rise of radio to the mainstream versus being only a hobby to the few. Just to give an idea on how popular radio became in a short time, at the start of the decade there was only 10,000, mainly homemade, receiver sets in use. Five years later about 7.5 million people had a radio in their home. It was seen as an easy way not only to entertain but to get information easily to all parts of the nation at the same time.
Aunt Sammy was created by the Bureau of Home Economics of the United States Department of Agriculture. They envisioned a daily friendly chat from the woman who was created to be the wife of Uncle Sam (or the sister…it is actually not quite clear). They were trying to target farm wives who often were isolated even from their neighbors by lack of telephones and poor roads. According to Martin Greif, the editor of the 1970s reissue of Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes, that “despite all we see and read about the Roaring 20s and “The Great Gatsby”, not everybody was Charlestoning around with a hip flask and a Stutz Bearcat. Most Americans lived on a farm or in small towns and it was to that audience that Aunt Sammy spoke.”
So, for 15 minutes a day and five days a week, Aunt Sammy was the host of “Housekeeper’s Chat” which premiered on October 3, 1926. Three women were responsible for getting the show on air. Ruth van Deman prepared the menus and recipes and was a specialist in home economics. The conversation portion of the show was written by Josephine Hemphill who taught journalism and was a graduate of the Kansas State Agricultural College. Lastly, the “recipe lady”, as fans of the show called her, was Fanny Walker Yeatman. She worked in the bureau’s kitchen and tested every recipe for the show. The voice of Aunt Sammy was provided by 30 different women at 30 different radio stations which gave her a friendly regional accent in different markets.
By 1927, more than a million housewives were tuning into the Aunt Sammy radio program with the department receiving 60,000 letters between October 1926 and May 1927. These letters helped guide what was talked about on the show. If they found the question to be of a general interest then they would present the topic on air. If not, they would mail a personal answer. They found the biggest concern for their listeners was meal planning and cooking and that “they were tired of planning three meals a day and were glad to get somebody else to do it for them”.
Any recipe that was heard on the show, the listener could write in and get a copy sent to them as radio technology could be a little spotty due to interruptions and static. Great care was taken in how the recipes and menus were clearly written so they were almost “fool proof” especially for a novice. There was so much interest in the recipes (41,000 requests just in the first six months of the program) that they printed 100,000 booklets called Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes in 1927. In a year, they were all given away. In 1931, a new edition called Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes Revised was printed and cost only 15 cents to buy. It was also the first cookbook printed in Braille to further highlight its popularity.
When flipping through Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes Revised, even with our modern tastes and pantries, most of the recipes could easily be made with items on hand which was by design. As Ruth van Deman, one of the women responsible for the Aunt Sammy scripts and recipes, put it “This is no caviar and truffle service for jazz-jaded appetites. We are striving to serve that great substantial class of women who are home makers. We aim to make the menus simple and also adaptable to the food supplies in all parts of the country.”
Aunt Sammy’s Recipes and Housekeeper’s Chat radio program helped out housewives a great deal as the nation moved into the Great Depression. She gave simple and economical yet healthy dishes to prepare that also tasted good. When a group of Girl Scouts were asked by President Hoover to prepare a cost-effective meal, it was no surprise that the girls chose an Aunt Sammy Menu. It was a dinner for eight in which they served split pea soup, meatloaf, baked potatoes with butter, graham muffins, cabbage carrot salad with French dressing, lemon bread pudding and tea. The total cost of the menu in the thirties was $1.89.
In 1934, Aunt Sammy was replaced with an anonymous narrator. As well, the name of the show was updated to Homemaker’s Chat instead of Housekeeper’s Chat. The USDA continued with the show until they finally ended it in 1946.
Aunt Sammy's Raisin Bread
This 1930s recipe makes a slightly sweetened dense bread but can easily be customized for your own taste. If you want it sweeter just add up to another tablespoon of sugar. Don't have raisins in the house? Then try dried cranberries, currants, chopped dates or chopped dried figs. Or swap out the dried fruit completely and use the same amount in chopped nuts. Want more spice? Add more cinnamon or try nutmeg or ginger. This recipe is really that versatile!
Source: Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes Revised
- 2 1/4 cups flour
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup of milk
- 1 1/2 cups raisins
- 1/4 cup melted butter
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a loaf pan.
- Sift together all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
- Into a small mixing bowl, beat the two eggs in the milk and stir into the dry ingredients.
- Stir in the butter and the raisins.
- Pour batter into the loaf pan and spread until even. Let sit for 20 minutes.
- Bake in oven for 1 hour.
Arndt, Alice. Culinary Biographies. Texas: Yes Press, Inc, 2006.
Associate Press Leased Wire. “Aunt Sammy Helps Housewives Over Radio” The Dispatch. Moline, Illinois. December 29, 1927. Page 11. Newspapers.com
Hemphill, Josephine F. “Radio Audience Gets Housekeepers’ Chats Five Days Each Week”. Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture, 1928.
Swift, Bob. “Aunt Sammy: Julia Child of the ‘30s”. Des Moines Tribune: Des Moines, Iowa, May 5 1975. Page 22. Newspaper.com