Did you know Duncan Hines was a real person?

…asks Theresa R.. Yes I did know that, Theresa. Duncan Hines was from right here in Kentucky as a matter of fact, a small city by the name of Bowling Green, about two hours south of where I live in Louisville. Most of us today only know Duncan Hines from cake mix boxes (and, occasionally, my ad banner). However there was a time when his name appeared on everything from books to jars of pickles to kitchen appliances.

Duncan Hines’ life is actually quite an interesting story. Born in 1885, he worked as a traveling salesman for most of his life, from the early years of the 20th century through roughly 1935. There weren’t any interstate highways then, or chain hotels or convenience stores, which meant the life of a professional traveler was one of constant adaptation and improvisation — particularly when it came to food.

People love to complain about the existence of fast food chains nowadays, yet not many know the need that they once served. That need was for safety. For you see, in the early part of the 20th century there wasn’t much “dining out.” People ate at home. If you were unlucky enough to be away from home at dinnertime (if you were a salesperson, say, or perhaps a construction worker or truck driver) your options were few. If you were fortunate you might encounter a guesthouse where you could get a decent meal. Most of the time, however, you were at the mercy of so-called “lunch counters”, cheap diner-like establishments where the food was of variable quality to say the least. Often it was prepared so poorly as to be outright dangerous.

Thus, for reasons of health — and sometimes pure survival — professional travelers kept lists of trustworthy eateries along their travel routes. Duncan Hines kept just such a list, one he was wont to copy from time to time for friends who were planning to take cross-country car trips. In time this list developed into a best-selling book called Adventures in Good Eating, a sort of food-focused travel guide which he published in 1935 at the age of 55. In time, Hines published other guides and cookbooks, and because his name came to be so trusted, it was eventually applied to the wide range of products that I mentioned above. By the mid-1950’s, Hines was a millionaire

Hines died in 1957, and his company was eventually sold to Procter & Gamble. The guidebooks fell out of publication in the early 1960’s as fast food chains, which offered consistent, safe food and welcoming environments for traveling families, proliferated across the nation. Today the cake mixes are the only evidence that the once-mighty Duncan Hines empire ever existed.

UPDATE: Reader Marissa from the Bowling Green Area Convention & Visitors Bureau adds:

I just came across your post from a couple of weeks ago about Duncan Hines being a real person… that was great! However, there is more remaining from his legacy than simply the cake mix boxes you mention! Down the road in Bowling Green, we have a 1,000 sq. ft. “Recommended by Duncan Hines” exhibit inside the Kentucky Museum, an 80-mile National Scenic Byway named the Duncan Hines Byway in his honor, and an annual Duncan Hines Festival, named a Top 20 August event this year by the Southeast Tourism Society. Visitors can also see his former home/office on Louisville Road (US 31W Bypass), now a funeral home but with a virtually unchanged kitchen remaining.

The exhibit is chock full of memorabilia from establishments worthy of being in his guidebooks like matchbooks, menus, soaps and postcards. The supermarket gallery displays shelves upon shelves with nothing but historic baking-mix boxes among other items, plus a freezer section showcasing his very first product- ice cream. In the kitchen gallery, visitors can see a full-size replica of Hines’ kitchen featuring his actual ice bucket, stove and other decorative items. All the china, cutlery, spices, and cookbooks in the cabinets are Duncan Hines-endorsed products, as well as the grill and salad dressings in the Outdoor Living Gallery. This educational yet entertaining exhibit has a colorful and retro vibe that all ages can enjoy. More information is available at www.duncanhinesmuseum.com.

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4 Responses to Did you know Duncan Hines was a real person?

  1. Linda says:

    I knew Betty Crocker was a myth but had no idea about Duncan Hines. Sad when such colorful and interesting people vanish for the most part from our world. Thanks for keeping the stories alive!

  2. Ellen says:

    I’m from Bowling Green and I can recommend the Duncan Hines exhibit. It’s very interesting to see the huge range of cake mixes that the company once produced, and the kitchen is just crammed with retro fixtures and implements.

    I’ve always thought of Duncan Hines as an earlier version of Jane and Michael Stern, the authors of Roadfood.

    • joepastry says:

      Excellent, Ellen! I’ve been to Bowling Green several times on business, but have not yet stopped at the exhibit. Shame on me! Next time I shall go, I promise.

      - Joe

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