Before Duncan Hines was best known as a brand of cake mixes, Duncan Hines the person was America’s go-to source for dining and travel advice. The Bowling Green native is now being honored at his alma mater, Western Kentucky University, which was known as Bowling Green Business College when he was a student there.
“During the depression he was a traveling salesman in Chicago working for a printing company,” says Brent Björkman, director of the Kentucky Museum at WKU. “He wasn’t much of a cook himself; he was a businessman looking for a really good meal.”
Hines kept notes on the places where he stayed and dined while on the road. He and his wife compiled this information into their 1935 Christmas cards and sent them to friends and family, who encouraged him to publish his guide. That was the beginning of Adventures in Good Eating, which became a national bestseller.
“You have to remember when Duncan Hines was travelling during this time there weren’t a lot of health codes and those sorts of things, so he was pretty fearless,” says Björkman. “He would go into the back into kitchens and he would check out their cleanliness. He was sort of a safety expert for America at the time.”
Hines’ guide became indispensable to people who wanted safe and affordable accommodations while traveling. That need became greater after World War II when more Americans had disposable income and were able to travel by car.
Americans trusted the Duncan Hines name, and that helped establish a ready-made customer base for Duncan Hines products at the supermarket.
The “Recommended by Duncan Hines” exhibit at the Kentucky Museum showcases Hines’s journey from salesman to author to ubiquitous brand.
“It’s a timeline of his entire life,” says Björkman. “You’re going to see a replica of a similar kind of car that he would have used as a traveling salesman and examples of the books Lodging for a Night and Adventures in Good Eating. You’re going to be able to see a lot of the cake mixes that you’ll recognize today from the stores [and how] they changed over time.”
Duncan Hines died in 1959, but Björkman thinks he would be happy with America’s modern food culture.
“We talk about the word foodie today and I think if Duncan Hines were around, he would be clapping and jumping up and down for joy,” says Björkman. “He wanted to expose people to the things that they’ve never done before, never tasted before, and he wanted to make that experience as rich as possible. He would be called a foodie I think he would be ecstatic.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2403, which originally aired on October 20, 2018. Watch the full episode.