Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Peanut

— a Wayno  / Piraro Bizarro cartoon from 10/20/21, “Written by Goober Louis Stevenson”, according to Wayno’s title:

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 3 in this strip — see this Page.)

A wonderfully goofy cross between two items of popular culture:

— the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, originally told as a literary tale, a caution about the dark duality of human nature and the danger of aspiring to divine power, but quickly folded into the popular consciousness in many forms

— and the figure of Mr. Peanut, the anthropomorphic mascot of the Planter’s Peanut Company

with the amiable and elegant commercial legume standing in for the evil and murderous Edward Hyde.

As it turns out, this basic silliness will eventually carry us into some decidedly unsavory and distressing moments in American history. Because, independent of Planter’s huckster playfulness, the peanut stands as a complex symbol of vexed racial relations in my country, in which the opposition between the outwardly proper Dr. Jekyll and the dangerous Mr. Hyde is reproduced in folk figures of black folk: on the one hand, the genial and helpful Mammy, Uncle Tom, George Washington Carver, etc.; on the other hand, the powerful but animalistic Mandingo, Nat Turner, Jack Johnson, etc.

Mammy. As a notice about some of what’s to come:

(#2) Mammy salted peanuts, apparently from post-Reconstruction times

(#3) A later Mammy, without the peanuts: Aunt Jemima in a 1989 incarnation

From Wikipedia:

Aunt Jemima (as known from November 1889 until June 2021) was an American breakfast brand for pancake mix, table syrup, and other breakfast food products. The original version of the pancake mix was developed in 1888–1889 by the Pearl Milling Company and was advertised as the first “ready-mix” cooking product.

Aunt Jemima was modeled after, and has been a famous example of, the “Mammy” archetype in the Southern United States. Due to the “Mammy” stereotype’s historical ties in slavery, Quaker Oats announced in June 2020 that the Aunt Jemima brand would be discontinued “to make progress toward racial equality”

Jekyll and Hyde. From Wikipedia:

(#4) Richard Mansfield was mostly known for his dual role depicted in this double exposure. The stage adaptation opened in Boston in 1887, a year after the publication of the novella. (photo by Henry Van der Weyde (1838-1924))

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a Gothic novella by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, first published in 1886. The work is also known as The Strange Case of Jekyll Hyde, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or simply Jekyll and Hyde. It is about a London legal practitioner named Gabriel John Utterson who investigates strange occurrences between his old friend, Dr Henry Jekyll, and the evil Edward Hyde. The novella’s impact is such that it has become a part of the language, with the vernacular phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” referring to persons with an unpredictably dual nature: outwardly good, but sometimes shockingly evil.

… Dr. Henry Jekyll is a doctor who feels that he is battling between the benevolence and malevolence within himself, thus leading to the struggle with his alter ego Edward Hyde. He spends his life trying to repress evil urges that are not fitting for a man of his stature.

Mr. Peanut. From Wikipedia:

(#5) Mr. Peanut, conveying comically exaggerated old-fashioned formality and rectitude — out-Jekylling Dr. Jekyll

Mr. Peanut is the advertising logo and mascot of Planters, an American snack-food company and division of Kraft Foods. He is depicted as an anthropomorphic peanut in its shell dressed in the formal clothing of an old-fashioned gentleman: with a top hat, monocle, white gloves, spats, and a cane.

From Contingent magazine (“Contingent is a non-profit history magazine”), “The Life And Times Of Mr. Peanut” by Rachel Kirby on 2/13/20, with some jokiness on the ad-campaign “death” of Mr. Peanut and his rebirth as a new mascot, but quickly moving to a view of Mr. Peanut as merely an outward aristocratic veneer concealing the character’s true, earthy nature:

Mr. Peanut, full name Bartholomew Richard Fitzgerald-Smyth, is a paradoxical combination of southern agriculture and Virginia aristocracy. His cane, monocle, and white gloves obscure his ambiguously sepia-toned body. De-accessorized, he is just a product of the earth. But he dresses up, masquerading as a person of capital and social status, characteristics not usually allotted to those who do the labor of cultivating peanuts. Consequently, Mr. Peanut embodies two seemingly-distinct but deeply-connected Virginian worlds: he is a product of the state’s agricultural and aristocratic traditions.

… [some actual history:] It was not European colonizers … that brought these nuts (technically legumes) to the land that became the United States; in the seventeenth century, enslaved people brought peanuts with them from Africa, and the nuts eventually became a ubiquitous crop throughout the southeast. Because of their relative ease of cultivation — a cheap crop that grew in otherwise “poor” soils — enslaved Africans continued to grow peanuts for their own consumption, while those who enslaved them fed the legume to their livestock. In the pre-Civil War South, peanuts were often boiled, in keeping with African foodways, while in the urban North they were roasted in their shell and sold from street vendors. The nineteenth-century saw a growing awareness of the peanut’s usefulness for producing oils and butters, and by the turn of the twentieth century, the market for peanuts was on the rise with southern peanuts leading the industry.

In the first decade of the 20th century, “the peanut went from a city snack and regional food to a national staple,” with national production, distribution, and marketing. Italian-born Pennsylvania resident Amedeo Obici founded Planters Peanuts in 1906 with his business partner Mario Peruzzi. Together Obici and Peruzzi opened their business in a factory in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where they roasted, blanched, and salted Virginia peanuts.

Deceptively, Virginia peanuts, also referred to as goobers and goober peas, are not grown exclusively in Virginia. “Virginias” are a type of peanut harvested throughout the Southeast, and they make up about fifteen percent of the United States’ annual peanut crops. Fittingly, Virginia (the state) is known for producing particularly nice Virginia-type peanuts. Desiring nuts that were Virginian in both origin and type, in 1914 Obici and Peruzzi established what would become the company’s primary production and processing facilities in Suffolk, Virginia, a peanut-growing town in the southeastern part of the state.

In 1916, Obici put out a call for logos that would help build a brand for his goobers. He wanted an image to differentiate his product from the peanut’s popular associations with poverty, farming, and the cheap “peanut gallery,” but even more importantly, from his competitors’ product. His nuts were not to be mistaken for any other average goober.

But Mr. Peanut was not originally imagined as a fancy nut — at least not by his creator. Fourteen-year-old Antonio Gentile, from Suffolk, Virginia, submitted a series of sketches of an anthropomorphized peanut. His peanut with legs won him the contest and the five dollar prize. But Gentile’s drawing was not identical to the red-carpet-ready Mr. Peanut known today. Instead, his sketches showed “Mr. P. Nut Planter,” a working-class nut. Named for what he does rather than what he is, Mr. P. Nut Planter was depicted serving peanuts, jumping over a produce sale, or otherwise participating in the peanut industry as a worker. Gentile designed him to represent both the product and the laboring members of the peanut-growing community of Suffolk, Virginia.

Yet when Planters first introduced Mr. Peanut in 1917, he had become a fancy nut — a wealthy nut. His peanut body and human-like arms and legs were accessorized with a cane, top hat, spats, and a monocle. Other than his shell, he was devoid of references to his agricultural origin, especially the labor that created him. The accompanying text stated that he had “just been created and introduced,” but made no mention of being planted, grown, or picked. The copy continued with a long “quotation” from Mr. Peanut himself, in which he remarked that  “the Planters Nut & Chocolate Co., originated the secret process of making whole salted peanuts,” and highlighted the company’s  “distinctive glassine bag.” While these references highlight the industrial processing of peanuts and its benefits to consumers, neither the text nor the imagery references the agricultural stages of production.

Guided in the 1910s and 1920s by their new well-dressed Mr. Peanut, Planters launched both “The Nickel Lunch” campaign and the cocktail peanut, products that targeted two different classes of consumers. In these efforts, they attempted to position their product as one that held associations with lower-class production and consumption, while also being a product of status, desired by members of high-society.

Even as his appearance remained dependent on his very existence as a peanut, an agricultural product, Mr. Peanut embraced an English style of men’s formal “full dress.” This styling included a black top hat, white gloves, and spats, and it relied on conventions of distinction, leisure, frivolity, and impractical wealth. The monocle was no longer standard fashion in England or the US when Mr. Peanut was created, but he embraced it as a marker of classic style and emblem of the “great English aristocrat.”

Appearing in campaigns for the “nickel lunch” and cocktail peanuts, Mr. Peanut was positioned as a character who could speak and market to his social equals and those without his apparent means. In colonial Virginia, “planter” referred not to the people who did the labor but those who controlled the land and labor; Mr. Peanut’s attire made clear which group he was supposed to belong to.

So the peanut enters the American story as a food of enslaved blackfolk, spreads to other poor folk working on the land (see the next section of this posting),  becomes generally available as a street food, and then was elevated to the aristocracy as Mr. Peanut in Planter’s advertising campaigns from a hundred years ago.

The middle part of the story, from the Modern Farmer site, “Tracing the Link Between Slavery and Peanut Farming” by Debra Freeman on 4/19/22: “A new book delves into the history of a crop that affected indentured and enslaved people on a global scale”, about Jori Lewis’s Slaves for Peanuts: A Story of Conquest, Liberation and a Crop That Changed History:

Most Americans think of peanuts in terms of peanut butter or as a snack at baseball games. The history of peanuts in America, of course, is more complicated than that, and it is often tied to the enslavement of African Americans. However, the history of peanuts in West Africa is perhaps even more complicated.

Although the peanut originated in either Peru or Brazil, Africans were the first to introduce the legume to the United States in the 1700s. Peanuts were often the only food for the enslaved while on ships heading to America. In the earliest days of this country, peanuts were not held in high esteem. They were seen as food for livestock, poor people and the enslaved, even though they could be used for oil and as a substitute for cocoa.

The enslaved were familiar with how to successfully grow peanuts since they were prevalent in West Africa. By the 1800s, peanuts began to grow commercially, particularly in Virginia, although the crop spread throughout the South. By 1860, some farmers found peanuts to be more profitable than cotton. After the Civil War, the stigma against peanuts dissolved, as both Northern and Southern soldiers supplemented their diet with them, leading to an increase in peanut consumption.

Thanks to the contributions of George Washington Carver and the creation of machinery that properly cleaned the peanut plant, the crop spread throughout the country. In the early 1900s, machinery was created to shell and clean peanuts, increasing the demand for peanut butter, roasted nuts, candy and peanut oil.

goobers. From NOAD:

noun gooberNorth American informal 1 (also goober pea) a peanut: he was snacking on a sack of goobers. 2 [a] a foolish person: throughout my dating career, I was set up with some goobers. [b] dated a person from the southeastern US, especially Georgia or Arkansas. ORIGIN late 19th century: from an earlier sense ‘peanut’, from Kikongo nguba.

And then goober ‘white-trash man’ — personified as the foolish, bumbling, but good-hearted poor-white folk character of the rural South Goober. Realized on American television in the character Goober Pyle. From Wikipedia:

(#6) George Lindsey as Goober Pyle in his signature whoopee cap

Goober Pyle is a fictional character in the American TV sitcom The Andy Griffith Show and its sequel series Mayberry RFD. He was played by George Lindsey. Lindsey first read for the part of Gomer Pyle, Goober’s cousin, which went to actor-singer Jim Nabors. The two actors had similar backgrounds; Lindsey was from Jasper, Alabama, while Nabors was from Sylacauga, Alabama.

The duality of African American stereotypes. From the site of the National Museum of African American History & Culture (of the Smithsonian Institution), “Widespread and Pervasive Stereotypes of African Americans”:

Decades-old ephemera and current-day incarnations of African American stereotypes, including Mammy, Mandingo, Sapphire, Uncle Tom and watermelon, have been informed by the legal and social status of African Americans. Many of the stereotypes created during the height of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and were used to help commodify black bodies and justify the business of slavery. For instance, an enslaved person, forced under violence to work from sunrise to sunset, could hardly be described as lazy. Yet laziness, as well as characteristics of submissiveness, backwardness, lewdness, treachery, and dishonesty, historically became stereotypes assigned to African Americans.

The Mammy stereotype [see #2 above, complete with peanuts] developed as an offensive racial caricature constructed during slavery and popularized primarily through minstrel shows. Enslaved black women were highly skilled domestic works, working in the homes of white families and caretakers for their children. The trope painted a picture of a domestic worker who had undying loyalty to their slaveholders, as caregivers and counsel. This image ultimately sought to legitimize the institution of slavery. The Mammy stereotype gained increased popularity after the Civil War and into the 1900s. During this time her robust, grinning likeness was attached to mass-produced consumer goods from flour to motor oil. Considered a trusted figure in white imaginations, mammies represented contentment and served as nostalgia for whites concerned about racial equality.

… Conjured by the minds of enslavers and auctioneers to promote the strength, breeding ability, and agility of muscular young black men, the Mandingo trope was born. While under the violence of enslavement, a physically powerful black man could be subdued and brutally forced into labor. Emancipation brought with it fears that these men would exact sexual revenge against white men through their daughters, as depicted in the film “Birth of a Nation” (1915). The reinforcement of the stereotype of the Mandingo as animalistic and brutish, gave legal authority to white mobs and militias who tortured and killed black men for the safety of the public.

Headlines of newspapers across the nation, beginning around the turn-of-the-century, document a frenzy of arrests, attempted lynchings and murders of “black brutes” accused of insulting or assaulting white women. Heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson epitomized the Mandingo or Black Brute of white imaginations in the flesh. Called a beast, a brute and a coon in print, Johnson’s relationships with white women took up as much newsprint as his fighting abilities. With his 1910 victory over James Jeffries, promoted as the “Great White Hope,” Johnson brought white fears to a head. The result was weeks of riotous mob violence across the nation that left thousands of African American communities and lives in ruin.

Two contrasting stereotypes, as I wrote above:

the peanut stands as a complex symbol of vexed racial relations in my country, in which the opposition between the outwardly proper Dr. Jekyll and the dangerous Mr. Hyde is reproduced in folk figures of black folk: on the one hand, the genial and helpful Mammy, Uncle Tom, George Washington Carver [two fictional characters and one real person], etc.; on the other hand, the powerful but animalistic Mandingo, Nat Turner, Jack Johnson [one fictional character and two real people], etc.

On Nat Turner, from Wikipedia:

Nat Turner’s Rebellion, historically known as the Southampton Insurrection, was a rebellion of enslaved Virginians that took place in Southampton County, Virginia, in August 1831. Led by Nat Turner, the rebels killed between 55 and 65 White people, making it the deadliest slave revolt in U.S. history.

(The  story was the basis for William Styron’s 1967 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner.) In the stereotype, Nat is a black field slave seized by a spirit driving him to murder whites (so serving as the embodiment of white fears of black rage).


One Response to “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Peanut”

  1. J B Levin Says:

    The Mammy stereotype figured large in the popular and frequently rereleased 1930s version of IMITATION OF LIFE, which had a pretty strong feminist message while promoting Louise Beavers’s character as the face of the pancake mix at the heart of the story. When this was remade in the late ’50s the story was removed from big business to show business, but Juanita Moore was still a mammy figure even without a food brand connection.

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