An SAIC alum and women’s rights activist created the first face of the iconic fictional homemaker.
Born Marjorie Frances McMein in 1888, Neysa McMein (SAIC 1907–11) became one of the most renowned American illustrators of her era. McMein studied at both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League of New York before launching her career. During World War I, she directed her creativity toward painting posters and cartoons for the efforts abroad, commissioned by the US and French governments as well as the American Red Cross. She also traveled Europe to entertain the troops with writer, Dorothy Parker. The United States Marine Corps honored her with the title of a non-commissioned officer—an honor only two other women received.
During her career, McMein illustrated advertisements and hundreds of magazine covers for popular national titles like Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, McClure’s, McCall’s, National Geographic, and Woman’s Home Companion. While most of the feminine faces peering from the weekly magazines at the time portrayed conventional female roles, McMein’s portraits were notably more modern and independent. This portrayal of the “New Woman” was a flagship ideal for the first feminist movement in which McMein was deeply invested. The artist advocated for women’s political and economic rights through women’s suffrage parades, journalistic travel, and membership in the Lucy Stone League, which encouraged progressive women to keep their maiden name. Known by friends for her wit and wild parties, she commisserated with other members of the Algonquin Round Table, a social circle of New York City creatives and intellectuals.
In 1936 Betty Crocker, the baked goods brand of General Mills, commissioned McMein to paint a “portrait” of the beloved homemaker for the company’s 15th anniversary. The portrait was a composite of real-life women who exemplified the traditional motherly image. While Betty Crocker’s ageless face has changed with the times, this first image stood the longest.
McMein passed away in 1949 and was inducted into the Society of Illustrator’s Hall of Fame in 1984.