The Long and Surprising History of Boxed Cake Mix

Next time you reach for that box of Funfetti, consider the fact that you're holding a piece of true American innovation (and marketing genius). 

A partially sliced chocolate cake sits on top of a collage of vintage box cake mix advertisements
Photo: Tyrel Stendahl/Dotdash-Meredith

Boxed cake mix gave new meaning to what we consider "homemade." Vintage advertisements for cake mix made big promises: an old-fashioned, homemade taste with minimal effort on the part of the cook, and in the case of some advertisements — a husband soon to follow.

But how did boxed cake mix come to be a fixture on supermarket shelves everywhere? The story is as much about marketing and psychology as it is about cake.

It all starts with John D. Duff of P. Duff and Sons, a Pittsburgh-based molasses company. During the Depression-era, Puff was looking for a way to use up his company's molasses surplus. He found his solution by dehydrating the molasses and combining it with other ingredients, including flour, sugar, and dried egg, to create a gingerbread mix. To form the batter, all home bakers had to do was add water, making it the basis for the cake mixes we know today.

two vintage box cake mix advertisements side by side
Alamy, Getty Images

Duff went on to create more baking mixes, and was eventually granted a patent in 1933. But at that point, Duff had already tweaked the formula in what would become a major breakthrough in the evolution of cake mix: a boxed cake mix that required the cook to add fresh eggs themselves, leaving out the dried eggs entirely.

"The housewife and the purchasing public in general seem to prefer fresh eggs and hence the use of dried or powdered eggs is somewhat of a handicap from a psychological standpoint," Duff wrote in the new patent application.

Despite this breakthrough, baking mixes really didn't take off until after World War II. During the war, flour companies were preoccupied with creating dry mixes for troops that were shelf-stable and suitable for the unpredictability of military combat. But once the war ended, they were able to switch gears and focus on consumer needs, using the new technology for drying and preserving foods that was developed during the war effort.

By 1951, there were hundreds of companies putting out cake mixes, most notably, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, and Duncan Hines. Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines went the add-egg route, but Pillsbury stuck to just water until later down the line. Like Duff, the big companies were convinced that allowing bakers to add their own eggs was more appealing because it got them more involved in the process and created a better tasting cake (see this 1950 Betty Crocker commercial).

two vintage betty crocker cake mix advertisements sitting side by side
General Mills, Alamy

But just when it looked like the cake mix trend was taking over, sales began to plateau in the mid-1950s. To get to the bottom of the decline, General Mills hired psychologist and marketing specialist Ernest Dichter (who would later be known as the father of the modern "focus group").

His findings led him to conclude that women felt guilt over not contributing more to their baking and needed to be more involved in the creative process.

Ditcher's research prompted advertisers to persuade women to personalize their cakes by decorating them with frosting. Soon, advertisements and cake mix boxes featured detailed instructions for icing and decorating elaborate cakes: "This decorating obsession sold the idea that this way, you're making the cake yours," says Laura Shapiro in her book "Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America."

The trend stuck, and in 1989, Pillsbury introduced their iconic Funfetti cake mix — a new way to decorate a cake by baking sprinkles into the cake rather than putting them on top. No 90s birthday party was ever the same.

Today, boxed cake mix shows no sign of slowing down: According to a survey, 186.18 million Americans used cake mixes in 2020. It's safe to say, cake mix is more than just a fad — it's here to stay.


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