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The Streets Were Paved With Gold: The Gold Medal Flour Yiddish Cookbook of 1921

gmedalfamily Washburn-Crosby's Gold Medal Cook-Book (in Yiddish) : From the Yeshiva University Archives
Washburn-Crosby's Gold Medal Cook-Book (in Yiddish) : From the collection of the Yiddish Book Center Washburn-Crosby's Gold Medal Cook-Book (in Yiddish) : From the collection of the Yiddish Book Center

Yeshiva University Archives owns a rare cookbook – a Yiddish Gold Medal Flour cookbook published by the Washburn-Crosby Co. in 1921 - currently celebrating its 95th birthday. The cookbook is probably the first commercially produced Yiddish cookbook for the immigrant American Jewish community by a major American non-Jewish company, and illustrates the growing economic acculturation and buying power of the foreign language market, as it was known in the advertising parlance of the time.

On April 23, 1921, the New York Yiddish daily newspaper, the Forverts [Forward], announced that it had won an exclusive contract from the Washburn-Crosby Company to advertise Gold Medal flour in its pages. This was a major coup, since most corporate advertising appeared in all the three or four major New York Yiddish dailies in existence at the time. The news appeared in the column, "Letters to Readers and Advertisers of the Forverts," a feature which the Forverts had recently instituted as it sought to increase its advertising power and revenue. The letter explained that the Forverts hoped to emulate the English press where advertising income helped support the costs of producing the newspaper, and keep down the costs of the paper. Indeed, the Forverts lowered the price of its daily edition by one cent, from 3 cents to 2 cents, the day the letter appeared. Although not explicitly stated, apparently the boost provided by the Gold Medal flour contract helped reduce the cost. Of course, the cheaper cost, and the public announcement introducing the pioneering advertising campaign were designed to increase readership and circulation figures of the paper.

The first ad in the Gold Meal flour series appeared on May 1, 1921.  It announced an unusual promotion: a recipe contest. $500 in prize money would be awarded to twenty contest winners, $25 per winner.  The winning recipes would be featured in a Yiddish cookbook which would be published after the contest.  The contest judges would be expert cooks associated with the Forverts. Each contestant was encouraged to submit at least one recipe which called for flour and of course, Gold Medal flour should be used. Each contest entrant was promised a free cookbook upon publication, whether or not they were a winner. The contest would run for two months, until July 1, 1921. The instructions stated that each recipe should include precise measurements and instructions, specify the baking or cooking time, and the number people it served. A series of illustrated ads ran in the Forverts throughout the duration of the contest, reminding readers to submit recipes and buy Gold Medal flour.  An ad published not long before the close of the contest, on June 26, noted that the cookbook won't include recipes which are expensive to make or are non-kosher.  Perhaps these caveats were added based on the recipes which were being submitted. The non-kosher instruction is noteworthy since the Forverts was a Socialist oriented newspaper.

The twenty contest winners were announced in the Forverts on July 10, 1921, and their names and addresses were printed. Winners ranged from Portsmouth, NH to Wilmington, ND and Atlanta, GA, indicative of the range of the Forverts’ circulation.

The cookbook in the Yeshiva University Archives features a full-page color illustration of a traditional Jewish family sitting harmoniously around a Sabbath table; the father stands blessing two golden brown challah loaves.  The text of the ad wishes the reader a happy Sabbath; the underlying message is that the family will have a happy Sabbath since they use Gold Medal flour, the key to baking beautiful, mouthwatering challahs.  The slogan for Gold Medal flour,  "Eventually - Gold Medal Flour - Why not now?” was translated to "Sof kol sof vet ir gebroykhen keyn andere vi Gold Medal mehl," and appears in the illustration.  It’s interesting to note that there is another version of the cookbook, held by the Yiddish Book Center which includes an additional illustration not found in Yeshiva’s cookbook, probably the result of a printing error.  This image portrays a modern young woman, presumably a housewife, proudly displaying a pan with a newly baked challah, fresh out of the oven. The text in this illustration completes the slogan: “Why not now?” -  “varum nit yetst?”  in a stylish eye-catching font.  This pair of images intimates that all Jewish families, traditional and modern, younger and older, have a place at the table in America and a golden future in a country where companies are interested in making them feel at home – and, of course, in having them as consumers.

This series of ads was not the first time, nor would it be the last time, that the Washburn-Crosby Company, makers of Gold Medal flour, would court the Jewish market.  The company had advertised in several New York Yiddish newspapers in the 1910s – apparently the ads were successful enough to encourage Washburn-Crosby to embark on the cookbook project.  The cookbook was a collaborative effort between the advertising department of the Forverts and the Washburn-Crosby Company, and its publication must have benefitted the newspaper and the company, since Gold Medal flour ads continued to be featured in the Yiddish press, in the Forverts and in other Yiddish newspapers as well, after the cookbook was published in 1921.

A particularly noteworthy series of advertisements appeared in the Yiddish daily newspaper, the Forverts, in the fall of 1930. The Jewish woman was assured of a good year, a happy family, and no kitchen failures if she used Gold Medal flour.  Her round challas for Rosh Hashanah would be perfect, a promising symbol for a heathy, successful, year, the Simchas Torah challahs will be golden brown, and her kugels, kichel, lokshen, and baked goods will be delicious and admired by family and friends. The ads texts proclaimed Gold Medal flour to be a modern miracle which guaranteed consistently excellent results and was an advantage the contemporary baleboste, the Jewish housewife, enjoyed which her mother and grandmother had not. The flour had even been tested in a kitchen just like the baleboste's own by the Jewish cooking expert, Miriam Schiff, a Jewish Betty Crocker, (though I have not been able to determine yet if she was a real personality or not)  to guarantee its suitability for all recipes.

An ad which appeared in the Morgen Zshurnal (March 28, 1932) in the form of a cartoon is particularly compelling and instructive. It’s a three panel cartoon. The first panel features a mother-in-law asking her daughter-in-law, Hannah, if she plans to bake anything for the Sabbath. Hannah replies, “I’ll tell you the truth, mother-in-law, when I bake it doesn’t come out good.”  In the next panel, the mother-in-law advises Hannah to use Gold Medal kitchen-tested flour which guarantees successful baked goods.  In the final panel, the young husband says, “My mother’s baked good are really good.”  Hannah is able to say proudly, “I baked it myself with Gold Medal flour.”  Scrumptious baked goods, excellent family relations, and marital harmony, all wrapped up in a few cookies, thanks to Gold Medal Flour. This cartoon reflects the general tenor of the advertising in the Yiddish press at the time – a focus on the baleboste, the housewife, as the heart of the household, responsible for her family’s well-being and happiness.  Though it may be an exaggeration, it is perhaps worth noting that this conversation is reminiscent of a dialogue between a servant and her mistress in Poland in the 1800s in Joseph Opatoshu’s novel, In Poylishe Velder, published in New York in 1921.

The Gold Medal flour cookbook was part of a number of presumably mutually beneficial synergies:  the acculturation of immigrant Jewish families to American life by encouraging the use of American products, recognition on the part of American companies that the immigrant Jewish consumer was a viable market worth cultivating, thus encouraging American companies to learn more about the Jewish market and how to make Jews feel at home in America. These activities broadcast a message to the immigrant Jewish community that Jews can be proudly Jewish in America.  All this was facilitated by the Yiddish press and the advertising departments of individual newspapers, as well as a few independent Jewish advertising agencies.

A research note:  When I started doing research on advertising in the New York Yiddish press many years ago, I spent countless hours poring over microfilm machines, both positive and negative, throwing quarters and nickels into quirky machines which refused to accept three dimes at the New York Public Library, and painstakingly taking photographs in the pre-digital age from the physical newspapers at the National Library of Israel (then the Jewish National and University Library). Now you can access the Forverts and the Morgen Zshurnal  (through 1922) easily and conveniently in the comfort of your own home – at the Historical Jewish Press project on the NLI website.  To use an old advertising slogan “let your fingers do the walking.” Please browse and enjoy.

My thanks to NYPL and NLI for the use of their collections over many years, and to the Yiddish Book Center for giving permission to reproduce an image from the Gold Medal flour Yiddish cookbook.

Posted by Shulamith Z. Berger