The Washburn Crosby Company (later renamed General Mills) entered their finest flours into the 1880’s First Millers International Exhibition in Cincinnati, Ohio. Fortunately, their flours took the gold, silver and bronze medals. Soon after, Washburn Crosby Company changed its name to Gold Medal Flour.
According to the Washburn Crosby Cooking, “Cadwallader C. Washburn founded the Minneapolis Mill Company in 1856, thinking to lease power rights along the Mississippi River to millers. He bought the land owned by a failed Minneapolis mill in 1866, spending $100,000 to construct a new, modern mill on the site. Although people called the mill “Washburn’s folly” and believed that no mill so large should have been constructed so far west, Washburn believed that there would be demand for midwestern wheat. By 1874, he had the capital to construct yet another, larger mill — the Washburn ‘A ‘Mill. Following the usual practice of labeling mills according to size, the 1866 mill was relabeled the ‘B’ Mill. In ten years’ time, Washburn’s flour was winning awards at the Centennial Exposition.
“In September, 1877, he partnered with his brother and John Crosby, forming the Washburn-Crosby Company, but tragedy struck almost immediately. An explosion leveled the ‘A; Mill and five other buildings on May 2, 1878, temporarily crippling production. Bringing in safer new equipment, the mill was rebuilt, including this time the steel rollers that made their mill the world’s first automated mill. The ‘A’ Mill reached a capacity of 5,500 barrels of flour per day — foremost among mills until the advent of Pillsbury’s own ‘A’ Mill in 1881.
“At that same world’s fair, a German company had exhibited a new 1200 horsepower engine. Washburn’s milling company purchased the engine, installing it in the ‘A’ mill in Summer of 1894.
“It was also during this period that the decision was made to phase out the various trade names being used by Washburn-Crosby flour, including ‘Superlative,’ ‘Parisian,’ ‘Extra,’ and ‘Triple Extra.’ After the Columbian Expo, at which the ‘Gold Medal’ name was emphasized, the company began eliminating the other names gradually. Although ‘Superlative’ had been the more popular name, by 1894 more than half of the flour produced by Washburn-Crosby went out under the ‘Gold Medal’ name. By 1900, that amount had increased to 70%.” General Mills itself was created in June 1928 when Washburn-Crosby President James Ford Bell directed his company to merge with 26 other mills. In 1928, General Mills acquired the Wichita Mill and Elevator Company of the industrialist Frank Kell of Wichita Falls, Texas. With the sale, Kell acquired cash plus stock in the corporation. (Williams, J. W., “Frank Kell,” tshaonline.org)
To publicize Gold Medal Flour, after it became a General Mills product, the company decided to run a national campaign in the form of a picture puzzle. The idea was that when the consumer of the national magazine got the picture puzzle that he/she would put it together, a grand marketing scheme that nearly backfired on General Mills. The puzzle formed an interesting image of a picturesque village where people visiting a mercantile carried sacks of Gold Medal flour to their trucks to take home. The company decided that the prize for those submitting the puzzle would be a pin cushion in the form of a miniature Gold Medal flour sack.
Unpredictably, more than 30,000 people solved the picture puzzle and returned it to the General Mills offices. The company had to hire extra help to process the onslaught of mail. As equally unpredictable was the number of questions submitted by those mailing in the finished puzzles: How does one make a one-crust pie? How long should I knead my bread dough? Etc.
The company decided that could not simply ignore the questions for that would be bad marketing techniques. Instead, they took the unorthodox approach: they answered each letter with a personal reply. They sought out information from the wives of the office personnel and the warehouse personnel. They gathered recipes from home economists. And to make the replies appear more personal, the advertising department concocted a “woman,” whom they named Betty Crocker. The Crocker came from a popular secretary-director of the company who had recently retired. The name Betty was chosen for it had a commonality the advertisers wished to convey.
Eventually, trained correspondents were hired as “Betty Crocker.” They answer some 5000+ letters per month. Twenty-three trained home economists operate the Betty Crocker kitchens, where they test products and recipes. Although now real, Betty Crocker is America’s First Lady of Food.