Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2762: AUNT SAMMY

by Andrew Boyd

Today, Uncle Sam's better half. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Farming in the U.S. was once a lonely affair. Staying in touch with the world required a trip on foot or horse. It wasn’t an everyday event.

But things began to change in the early twentieth century thanks to three things: the car, the telephone, and perhaps most importantly, the radio. Radios were relatively inexpensive. They ran on batteries so didn’t require electricity in the house. They were reliable. Winter snowstorms frequently knocked down phone lines and rendered roads impassable. But a family huddled in their home could still hear a friendly voice on the radio.

old radio picture

William Marion Jardine grasped the importance of radio for farmers from early on. He loved both farming and education, and rose to become president of the Kansas State Agricultural College. Here Jardine became familiar with radio’s potential through the development of radio extension programs. In 1925, when he was appointed head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one of Jardine’s first acts was to set up the USDA’s radio service. Its mission was to create programs for farmers and get them aired.

William Marion Jardine picture

The effort proved quite successful as stations from around the country picked up the USDA’s programs. The shows were informational, but they weren’t dry. A program called Noonday Flashes featured informal discussions between a farmer and an agricultural agent. However, one of the most popular shows wasn’t aimed at farmers, but at farmers’ wives. The show, Housekeeper’s Chat, was hosted by Aunt Sammy. Though she never referred to herself as Uncle Sam’s wife, the implied connection wasn’t lost on listeners.

Radio Recipes cover

Aunt Sammy wasn’t the voice of a single woman, but hundreds of women working from scripts at their respective radio stations. Her persona talked about clothing, furniture, appliances — all sprinkled with world affairs. But her most enduring legacy derived from what she had to say about food. The USDA received so many requests for Aunt Sammy’s recipes that they were published in a pamphlet. It was an immediate hit — so popular that the USDA printed revised and expanded versions three times in just five years. Yet another version was printed fifty years later during the nation’s bicentennial. The pamphlet is reputed to be the first cookbook translated into Braille.

There’s nothing pretentious about Aunt Sammy’s dishes. The recipe for “smothered ham with sweet potatoes” lists only butter, sugar, and hot water as ingredients — other than ham and sweet potatoes. “Cabbage and carrot salad” calls for equal parts of shredded cabbage and carrots mixed with salad dressing. The goal wasn’t to impress, but to promote what at the time were considered healthy, well-rounded meals — a government tradition that continues to this day.

Michelle Obama planting in a garden with children

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Notes and references:

Special thanks to listener Martina Strbuncelj for bringing Aunt Sammy to my attention.

The Domestic Side of Uncle Sam. From the Months of Edible Celebrations Website: http://monthsofediblecelebrations.blogspot.com/2009/07/domestic-side-of-uncle-sam.html. Accessed December 20, 2011.

R. Kline. Consumers in the Country: Technology and Social Change in Rural America. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Selections from Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes. From the Agricultural Network Information Center Website: http://agnic.msu.edu/hgpubs/modus/morefile/hg215_76.pdf. Accessed December 20, 2011.

All pictures are from U.S. government Websites.

This episode was first aired on December 22, 2011



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2011 by John H. Lienhard.