Residents Helped USA ‘Bake Someone Happy’
Huntington residents with a passing knowledge of the historic Kissam House on Park Avenue will likely think of it as a reminder of the 18th and 19th century era of their town, one of candlelight, sheep-shearing and horse-drawn wagons.
Of more recent currency, however, is the house‘s association with Betty Crocker – the image of Betty Crocker that is in the heads of people “of a certain age,” that is.
That’s because the artist who painted the iconic brand image of Betty Crocker in the 1950s and ’60s – the woman who urged American women to “bake someone happy” with cake mixes, country kitchen recipes and pantry jubilees – was painted by the woman who lived in the Kissam House at the time: Hilda Grossman Taylor, a prominent illustrator who beat out Norman Rockwell for the commission.
And the face? Her Huntington friend and neighbor, Muriel Ann Gebhard Wadsworth.
Hilda’s story goes back to Syracuse, N.Y., where her family heritage went back to parents John F. Grossman and Lillian K. Grossman. Born in 1891, she and her brother both went to Syracuse University. There, Hilda excelled as an art student, studying under the pioneering artist and women’s rights advocate Jeannette Scott, a prominent member of the Inter-American Commission of Women who boycotted the New York State Fair one year, when she was told that her female students’ work could only be hung in a special “women’s building.”
Hilda was a winning artist even in college – she won the senior ball poster contest, for example – but it wasn’t until after graduating that she became prominent as an illustrator. By the 1930s, she was well known nationally for the covers she did on Parents Magazine, and her portraits of young people were highly regarded. By 1935, we find her married to a British man named Herbert Taylor, 20 years her senior. Her reputation soared, and by the 1950s we find her living in Huntington in the Kissam House.
Meanwhile the Betty Crocker company, established in 1921, was looking to update the portrait it had been using to brand the enterprise which went back to 1936. The company invited six well-known portrait/illustrators – including Hilda Grossman Taylor and Norman Rockwell – to paint a more contemporary, yet still grandmotherly, interpretation of the iconic household figure.
Hilda turned to her then 50-something-year-old friend Muriel Wadsworth as a model.
At one time a real estate salesperson for Daniel Gale, Muriel evidently had the word “winner” written all over her ever since she had been valedictorian of her high school in Massachusetts and attended Emerson College. She and her husband David, a TWA pilot, were world travelers and active volunteers around Huntington with such organizations as the Red Cross, Head Start, Visiting Nurse Service, Kiwanis, Good Samaritans, Habitat for Humanity, and the Huntington Rescue Squad, which David helped found.
The decision to use Hilda’s portrait was no snap one. The Betty Crocker company went through an exhaustive process, asking 1,600 women, drawn from communities across America, such questions as: Would you want her as a friend? Does she look honest? Does she look like a housewife or a career woman? Does she look relaxed or tense?
For Muriel, and for Hilda, too, it was yet another win. The portrait beat out Norman Rockwell and became the Betty Crocker image for much of the ’50s and ’60s.
Since that time, the image for Betty Crocker has been updated and changed numerous times. But for Baby Boomers, the no-mess no-stress face of homemade goodness and apple pie parades, the woman who wanted American women to “bake someone happy,” will always be the one based on Huntington resident Muriel Gebhard Wadsworth, and created by the woman who lived in the Kissam House on Park Avenue.