The Bizarre History of Cereal

One of the things that really attracted me to the Anglican church is their mellow approach to the minutiae of everyday life. In the Anglican worldview, most “things” aren’t inherently bad, but rather what’s bad is the way people apply those things to their lives. Thus, alcohol isn’t bad, but being a drunk is. Sex isn’t bad, but being promiscuous is. Red meat isn’t bad, but being a glutton is. This “middle of the road” philosophy kept a “militant vegetarian wing” or “teetotaler wing” from forming in the Anglican faith.

Other religions, of course, disagree. Seventh-Day Adventists, for example, discourage the use of alcohol or tobacco and promote vegetarianism. Strict Seventh-Day Adventists even shun caffeine drinks like coffee, tea and soda.

But there was one Seventh-Day Adventist who took it even further. This man thought that red meat and pork were literally evil, not just in the “it causes heart disease” sense, but in the “it’ll make you rape women” sense. And he also thought that most forms of sexual intercourse were evil, too… even between married couples! He especially hated masturbation, and felt that it caused urinary diseases, epilepsy, insanity and mental and physical debility in general, as well as uterine cancer in women and impotence and nocturnal emissions in men… and yes, even “reduced vision”.

Despite his extreme views, the man was no dummy. He was an acclaimed surgeon who ran a highly-regarded medical facility in Michigan. There he treated such luminaries as Henry Ford, Amelia Earhart, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Edison, former president William Howard Taft, famed athlete Johnny Weissmuller, and actress Sarah Bernhardt, among others. By 1906, his clinic was treating more than 7,000 people a year. He wrote several books. He gave speeches. He did a lot of research. And, on top of all this, he somehow found time to rear over forty orphaned children, legally adopting seven of them.

Yes, John Harvey Kellogg was a busy man. And, in his world, any “shortcut” he could find to keep people from eating meat and having sex was a bonus. That’s why he was so excited when he heard about Granula, America’s first dry breakfast cereal.

Invented by James Caleb Jackson in 1863, Granula was like an early version of Grape-Nuts cereal, only it was packaged as a brick. One had to chip off bits of the brick and soak it overnight to become edible. It looked something like a brick of sawdust, and was almost as edible. But the cereal had two purposes: both Jackson and Kellogg felt that meat was bad for the health, so eating Granula instead of a pork chop for breakfast would be healthier for the body. Kellogg also felt that the grains used in Granula would suppress sexual urges, and by eating it, one could kill two birds with one stone.

Kellogg took Jackson’s idea and developed his own product, which he named “Granola” in order to avoid lawsuits. Amusingly, Kellogg realized that the barely edible Granula would have to be reformulated to make it more appealing to people. Thus, the man who repressed so many pleasures in his patients developed a new recipe to make the fibrous sludge taste better. One wonders if Kellogg appreciated the irony.

Although it tasted like cardboard, Granola nevertheless became a hit at his Battle Creek Sanitarium, so Kellogg began selling the cereal to outsiders. By 1889, he was selling two tons of the stuff every week. That was good, Kellogg thought, but he could do better. So he went to work developing a more palatable recipe.

One day, Kellogg was working on a recipe with boiled wheat when he was called away on sanitarium business. He absentmindedly let the cooked wheat sit out while attending the matter, and when he returned he thought the dish was ruined. But Kellogg was a frugal man, so he decided to save the wheat anyway. He tried rolling out the wheat into sheets of dough. Instead of becoming a nice sheet, however, the wheat cracked apart into individual flakes. Once these were toasted, a flaked cereal was born. And once corn was substituted for wheat, corn flakes were born.

Granola and corn flakes were soon selling so well that in 1897 Kellogg formed the Sanitas Food Company with his brother Will Keith (W.K.) Kellogg. Initial sales were encouraging, and profit margins so high, that soon other cereal companies opened up in Battle Creek. In fact, by 1911 there would be over a hundred cereal companies in Battle Creek alone.

Of these, the most popular was the Postum Cereal Company, which was founded by Charles William Post, a former patient of Kellogg’s. In fact, Kellogg complained for years that Post had stolen his secret recipes from a safe in his office. Again, one wonders if Kellogg got the irony of complaining about someone stealing his recipes when his first product was a Granula knock-off. In any event, Post (a failed suspender salesman, and yes, that used to be a real job) opened his company the same year the Kellogg brothers opened theirs. But while the Sanitas Food Company had respectable sales, Postum’s sales quickly went through the roof. And that’s because Post believed in advertising.

At the time, most folks believed that only con men and snake-oil salesmen resorted to advertising, and John Harvey Kellogg wasn’t about to “stoop” to Post’s level. So while Kellogg’s sales held steady, Post’s products, aided by magazine and newspaper ads and a slew of “informative” pamphlets, flew off store shelves. Within a couple of years, Post was vastly outselling the Kellogg brothers, and while John Harvey Kellogg might have been OK with that, W.K. Kellogg was not. The brothers argued and argued over the matter, but W.K. eventually won. Sanitas soon began advertising, and their sales finally picked up. But it was the first sign of the huge rift to come.

In a strange twist, John Harvey Kellogg left the Seventh-Day Adventist church, but stuck to his religious principles. W.K. Kellogg remained in the church, but developed looser principles in regards to business. So while John Harvey saw his breakfast cereals as a tiny little bit of Man’s salvation, W.K. saw them as just a product to sell. And when it became obvious to W.K. that Sanitas needed to produce a brand of “sugared” corn flakes to compete with other companies, John Harvey was deeply offended. Sugar, in John Harvey’s view, was a tool of the devil which made people lazy and licentious; sugar coating his corn flakes, which had been invented to oppose those very urges, was a slap in the face. The two argued over the issue, with W.K. having the unassailable logic of a businessman and John Harvey the heartfelt conviction of a zealot. When it became obvious that the two simply couldn’t agree on the matter, W.K. formed his own company, the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company. Sanitas eventually faded into obscurity, while the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company eventually became the Kellogg Company, the world’s largest producer of cereal, with 2011 sales of over $13 billion.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

At the turn of the century, cereal was mostly the same. There was little to differentiate Kellogg’s corn flakes from Post’s Toasties or any of the hundreds of other brands of corn flakes. That’s why advertising was so important for C.W. Post, and why Postum was such an early success.  But when everyone else started advertising, Post lost his advantage. As did everyone else.

To make matters worse, a man named Clarence Saunders founded a revolutionary grocery store chain called Piggy Wiggly in 1916. The chain was America’s first self-service grocery store. In the past, people would walk into a grocery store and tell a clerk what they needed. The clerk would then assemble and package the order, much like Mr. Olsen did on the Little House on the Prairie TV show. Customers might prefer one brand of something over another, but it generally fell on the grocer to choose which brand of flour or canned meat to stock. That all changed with Piggy Wiggly. Customers entered the store, picked up a basket, and chose the products themselves. Thus, packaging became vitally important in food sales… especially with cereal, since it was so often the same. And that’s where Sunny Jim comes in.

Sunny Jim
Sunny Jim

Sunny Jim was the mascot for a cereal named Force. He looked a bit like the man on the Johnnie Walker bottle, and he was the first cereal mascot in America. Force’s sales increased as soon as Sunny Jim appeared on the box, and he became so popular in newspapers and magazines that other companies developed their own mascots. In fact, mascots became vital to cereal sales… so much so that in the middle of the Great Depression Postum paid a cartoonist $1.5 million to develop new mascots for their cereals (that’s almost $25 million in 2010 dollars!). That cartoonist was named Walt Disney, and Walt used Postum’s money to move to Hollywood and start an empire of his own.

Once cereal companies jumped on the advertising bandwagon, they were compelled to keep up with new technologies. And in the 1920s, “new technology” meant radio. Quaker Oats gave away a million radios to consumers as part of a promotion. Cereal companies bought radio stations and sponsored thousands of radio programs. Most of the companies’ radio advertising was directed at housewives, which made sense, as housewives bought almost all of a household’s groceries back then.

That changed in 1936, when Wheaties introduced a new character named “Skippy” in their radio spots. Skippy was a ne’er do well neighborhood kid along the lines of Dennis the Menace, and he became hugely popular with kids. And kids, of course, hassled their mothers into buying Wheaties. Wheaties sales took off and soon cereal manufacturers were targeting children almost exclusively. Popular heroes like Dick Tracy, the Lone Ranger, and Buck Rogers were enlisted to sell cereal to kids.

Despite all the advertising, most American children in the 1930s were eating healthy cereals like Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies, and Cheerios. But many of them were dumping spoonfuls of sugar in their cereal bowls every morning. That bothered a man named Jim Rex, so in 1939 he invented a sweetened cereal called Ranger Joe Popped Wheat Honnies, in hopes that kids would accept a sweetened cereal as-is instead of dumping even more sugar on the “healthy” cereals. Once again, the irony was lost on everyone involved, as sales of Wheat Honnies took off and other cereal companies stepped in and made their own sugary cereals. Cereal companies not only defended their actions, they made the astonishing sugar content of their products (as much as 56%!) a selling point, claiming that it gave children the fuel they needed to start the day.

Of course, television soon came around, and cereal companies, one of the most media savvy industries by this point, not only drove much of the medium’s content, they pushed the technology behind it as well. An ad man named Leo Burnett developed shows that were little more than half-hour advertisements for cereal companies. Tie-ins with popular characters like Yogi Bear, Superman and Fred Flintstone became standard operating procedure. Burnett, along with others, pushed the TV networks to begin broadcasting in color, and once they did he advocated that cereal companies use purpose-made cartoon characters as spokemen. Tony the Tiger was the first, but Cap’n Crunch, Toucan Sam and hundreds of others would shortly follow. Burnett’s advertising style was so effective that cereal sales grew every single year for many years, and cereal remains the second most advertised product on TV, trailing only automobiles.

It amazes me that in only a hundred years cereal transformed  from a health food designed to replace meat and repress sexual urges to the sugar bombs we know today. It’s also amazing how such a simple product became a cutting-edge marketing juggernaut for the past hundred years.

There are a couple of interesting postscripts to the story:

– John Harvey Kellogg invented the word “sanitarium”, which he took from the British word “sanatorium”, meaning a soldier’s long-term care facility.

– C.W. Post’s most popular advertising pamphlet was titled “The Road to Wellville”, which is also the name of a 1994 movie which lampooned the views of Dr. Kellogg and other Victorian scientists.

13 Replies to “The Bizarre History of Cereal”

  1. That is a great article. Interestingly though the kids were brought up with so much sugar that is not a really overweight generation.
    Hope all is well with you.

  2. Granula is Alive and well! Quality Planet Gourmet Foods makes Granula right here in Boulder, CO. It’s based on Dr. Jackson’s uber-health concept but with modern day resources. Basically, more seeds than grains.

  3. When I was a kid my sisters and I argued over what cereal to get each week based in the toy in the box. Now there isn’t even toys. My kids argue over who is on the box dora,princess’s or what ever characters are the in thing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.