You might be surprised to learn that Aunt Jemima--one of the most recognized faces in syrup and pancake mixes-- was a real person.
Anna Short Harrington—the woman whose likeness became ‘Aunt Jemima’ --was an actual employee of Quaker Oat who died in 1955.
Now her heirs want a piece of a fortune they believe is rightfully theirs.
D.W. Hunter, the great grandson of Harrington, filed a class action lawsuit against PepsiCo and its related subsidiaries on behalf of all of Harrington’s great grandchildren.
The suit alleges that PepsiCo Inc., Quaker Oats, Pinnacle Foods and Hillshire Brands Co. deliberately withheld information that identified Harrington as a former employee of Quaker Oats while simultaneously exploiting her image and recipes—without paying a fair share of royalties to her or related family members for over 60 years.
Hunter is seeking $2 billion, plus punitive damages, reports the Chicago Tribune.
In the lawsuit, Hunter claims that the companies lied about not having employment records for Harrington but had her image in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. While Aunt Jemima originally debuted in the late 1880’s, the character was not trademarked until 1937.
Anna Short Harrington assumed the role of the recognize breakfast matron in 1935. Reportedly, she was selected for her original pancake recipe which was then mass produced for the grocery store shelves—but Harrington was allegedly dissuaded from hiring a lawyer and therefor never collected royalties from the usage of her recipes.
The family was only made aware last year that Quaker Oats had actually trademarked Harrington's likeness and picture in 1937, and thus started the process to seek out royalties owed.
The family also alleges a “racial element” to the exploitation of all women who portrayed Aunt Jemima, and accuses Quaker Oats of stealing “64 original formulas and 22 menus” from Harrington herself, according to the Tribune.
The suit alleges that Quaker Oats found Olivia Hunter, Harrington’s youngest daughter, in 1989 to use to likeness in the updated brand imagery seen today.
In a statement, Quaker said that while it could not discuss the details of pending litigation, it does not believe there is any merit to this lawsuit.
Quaker Oats has since licensed the Aunt Jemima likeness to other companies including Pinnacle Foods. The replicated image has been reproduced food items like frozen pancakes, waffles and various merchandise totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.