1992 ad for Uncle Bens Sweet and Sour products.

Uncle Ben’s is a brand name for parboiled (“Converted”) rice and related food products. Owned by Mars, Inc., the brand was first used by a company called Converted Rice Inc. which was later bought by Mars. It is based in Houston, Texas. Uncle Ben’s rice was first marketed in 1943 and was the top-selling rice in the United States from 1950 until the 1990s.

History

When white South Carolina planters were unable to make their rice crops thrive, “slaves from West Africa’s rice region tutored planters in growing the crop.”  In the American South, whites once commonly referred to elderly black men as “uncle,” even though they were not blood relatives (cf. Uncle Remus and Uncle Tom). During the 1940s, blacks were popularly associated with rice. In the later 1800s, African-Americans were often featured as company spokespersons for agricultural and other products in the United States. This kind of market branding has continued, though to a lesser extent, into the 21st century.

Uncle Ben’s products carry the image of an elderly African-American man dressed in a bow tie, perhaps meant to imply a domestic servant in the Aunt Jemima tradition, or maybe a Chicago maitre d’hotel named Frank Brown.  According to Mars, Uncle Ben was an African-American rice grower in Texas known for the quality of his rice. Gordon L. Harwell, an entrepreneur who had supplied rice to the armed forces in World War II, chose the name Uncle Ben’s as a means to expand his marketing efforts to the general public.   The Mars company has not supplied any further biographical detail about the Uncle Ben persona.

Info gleaned from Wikipedia

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