Radio’s Favorite Food Expert

Kids, Aunt Mary has gone down the rabbit hole, and like Alice my eyes have been opened to a new and fabulous world.

A friend gave me this adorable and very pink promotional cookbook that I thought would be perfect to share with everyone. It’s kitschy and charming and unlike a lot of retro recipes, it’s not gross. As I like to think of myself as Fun and Fancy, I thought it was a perfect fit for a mid week Facebook post.

Scanning in the cover I saw the book was presented by Mary Lee Taylor.

Well, who the hell is Mary Lee Taylor? I assumed she was some B-list Betty Crocker. I began searching online and was pretty sure Google was going to come back with a palms-up shrug and an “I dunno.”

Nope! What popped up was an Aunt Mary trifecta: retro recipes, clever PR and a groundbreaking woman. We will unpack this mystery woman a bit, but first, here are some things it would be helpful to know:

  1. It was very common for food companies to come out with promotional cookbooks featuring new ways to use their products. These are still highly collectable.
  2. Historically, women have been what we would call “early adapters” to emerging industry. Often working for lower pay and offering more collaboration, women were on the forefront of many new media including stunt journalism, advertising, radio and later TV production.
  3. Radio programs were generally sponsored by a product that was looking to target an audience. The radio program would be tailored to engage that audience. For instance, detergent companies looking to attract women to their product would sponsor daytime dramas, which later became known as Soap Operas.

Erma Perham Proetz was working as a copywriter for a St. Louis advertising firm starting in the 1920’s. By some evidence she seemed to already be an expert in nutrition and cooking when the PET Milk campaign was handed to her in the midst of the Great Depression. Sure, she could have gone down the recipes-in-magazines lane, but she took a hard turn into radio. Under her pseudonym, Mary Lee Taylor, Proetz started hosting short radio segments offering wisdom, encouragement, household tips and yep, recipes featuring (and sponsored by) PET Milk to her listeners.

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Soon her wildly popular segment expanded to 30 minutes and a national audience. The first half was a lighthearted show featuring a newlywed couple, the second half showcased Proetz and her recipes. This is when she started offering free-by-mail recipe books which were also incredibly popular.

This show lasted for 20 years! During this time Proetz moved up the ranks of her firm, finally becoming the executive vice president. Her other accomplishments included becoming a top leader of women in business in St. Louis and the US, being named by Forbes Magazine as an Outstanding Woman in Business, and she was the first woman elected to the Advertising Hall of Fame. Damn girl!

Sadly, the show did not make the transition to television and was cancelled in 1954, a decade after Proetz’s death. You can actually still find recordings of her programs today!

This is the sort of thing I love digging up. Start with an adorably retro and delightful recipe book and then find the heart and soul behind it.

I’ll say it again, every ad has a hidden story.

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