How Cereal Became America’s Favorite Breakfast Food
A bowl of cereal and milk for breakfast is as American as apple pie. So is its “granula to riches” story!
People have been eating grains and corn ever since they figured out how to cook them. But while in most places and times that meant using these dietary staples to bake bread or make porridge, Americans, with their usual panache, took the concept in a new direction and created a dish that was uniquely their own: packaged, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals.
Like many tales that came out of the American hinterlands, the story of breakfast cereals is one that is filled with daring innovation, dastardly intrigue, and a cast of larger-than-life characters. Our story begins in a Michigan town with a name that couldn’t be more apt: Battle Creek.
Hold the Whiskey
We tend to blame our busy modern lifestyle for our difficulties preparing well-balanced, nutritious meals. Yet some 150 years ago, many Americans were faced with a similar problem. The typical diet of those times consisted mainly of red meat, whiskey, and coffee, and the American populace experienced all sorts of gastric problems as a result.
Some religious zealots blamed the diet for also causing laziness and other undesirable traits that needed to be uprooted. Fueled by this religious fervor, the country’s first known vegetarian movement was born in the 1860s. One member of the sect, Dr. James Caleb Jackson, went so far as to invent a grain-based breakfast product to help further the cause, which he named Granula.
Unfortunately, Dr. Jackson’s Granula had the texture of a solid brick—it had to be soaked overnight in milk to be edible—and so it never became popular. However, the bran biscuit did catch the eye of a young physician named John Harvey Kellogg, who had been invited to head a struggling sanitarium in Michigan. Kellogg managed to turn around the health facility, and his swanky Battle Creek Sanitarium was soon all the rage. His wealthy clients included Roosevelts, Rockefellers, and other members of the American elite who came to the trendy “San” for a cure for their digestive problems.
Part of Dr. Kellogg’s cure included “strange” ideas such as daily exercise and a more balanced diet. To add more fiber to the menu, Kellogg began making and serving a bran biscuit similar to the one invented by Jackson. He even called it by the same name. But after he was slapped with a lawsuit, he wisely changed a letter and called his biscuit Granola.
A Flakey Mistake
By this time, Kellogg had invited his brother Will, a former traveling broom salesman, to join him at the sanitarium. Together they worked on ways to make the still practically inedible wheat biscuit more palatable.
The original method they used was to boil the wheat and then run it through rollers to make a very thin sheet, similar to a super thin cracker. The sheet was then roasted and ground to a meal-like consistency. One day, however, they forgot about a batch of boiled wheat and left it overnight. When they discovered their mistake the next morning, they decided to try to salvage the batch and ran it through the rollers as usual. But what came out was not a sheet. Instead, they had a mass of flakes. Undeterred, they roasted the flakes and served them to the sanitarium’s patients. The crispy cereal, which the brothers called Granose Flakes, was such a hit that people continued to order the flakes even after they had returned to their homes.
Will Kellogg took over the mail order business, and soon he was adding corn flakes to the product line. He wanted to expand the business even further by selling the flakes to grocery stores, but his brother refused. Dr. Kellogg felt that such a blatantly commercial venture would compromise his integrity as a medical professional. The two brothers therefore parted ways in 1906. Will Kellogg bought the patents for the cereals and founded the Kellogg Company.
Will Kellogg had a flair for advertising, and within three years, his new company was shipping more than a million cases of cereal a year. But just as his brother had copied Jackson’s Granula biscuit, there was someone watching the Kellogg brothers and itching to beat them at their own game.
Post & Toast
When Charles William Post checked in at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in February 1893, he hoped to find a quiet place where he could recover from a second nervous breakdown. Both of those breakdowns had been caused by too much stress at work. In his search for a remedy, he had learned about the chemistry of digestion, and from there it was natural step to seek out Dr. Kellogg’s nutrition work at the sanitarium.
But unlike the other patients, Post had a professional interest as well. An earlier interest in coffee substitutes had led him to try a chicory-based beverage made by local natives in Texas. After seeing the success of the Kelloggs, he decided to open his own sanitarium in Battle Creek, which he called La Vita Inn, and developed his own line of chicory coffee and cereals.
Like Will Kellogg, C.W. Post had a natural flair for advertising. Soon he was making a fortune from his Postum coffee substitute and his own version of Dr. Jackson’s original Granula biscuit, which Post later named Grape-Nuts. (It didn’t hurt sales when he claimed that his Grape-Nuts cereal could cure appendicitis, improve your IQ, and make red blood redder.) His version of Kellogg’s wheat flakes didn’t do so well at first. But after he dropped the original name—Elijah’s Manna—and dubbed the flakes Post Toasties, he had another best-seller on his hands.
Post wasn’t the only one challenging the Kellogg brothers. By the early 1900s, there were some 40 different cereal brands being produced in the Battle Creek vicinity. By 1911 there were 107 different brands of corn flakes alone.
And Battle Creek wasn’t the only place where cereal was being manufactured. Henry Perky invented shredded wheat cereal in Denver, Colorado in 1890. Although a health publication called The Chicago Vegetarian recommended using the pillow-like biscuits as croutons for soup, a catchy advertising campaign corrected the misconception by informing consumers to eat “All the Meat of the Golden Wheat” with milk or cream.
For sheer showmanship, though, perhaps nothing could compare to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, where the next big cereal product was introduced with a bang.
The Food Shot From Guns
Dr. Alexander P. Anderson may not have name recognition today, since he sold the patent for his new product to the Quaker Oats Company. But like the Kelloggs, C.W. Post, and Perky, he was blessed with a flair for both invention and creative marketing.
A botanist by profession, Anderson believed that starch crystals had a tiny molecule of water trapped inside, which would turn to steam and cause a reaction when the starch granule was heated. To test his theory, he enclosed grains in a sealed glass tube, which was then placed in an oven. When the grains turned yellowish-brown, he removed the tube from the heat and cracked it open with a hammer. The impact created an explosion that sounded like a gun. And as Anderson had suspected, the grains had been turned into a long stick of white-colored, puffed up starch.
Anderson tried his experiment on just about every type of grain, but his most enduring success was with rice, which he introduced at the St. Louis World’s Fair with a flourish. Eight large cannon-sized tubes, called guns, were loaded with rice and heated. When the caps of the guns were removed, the puffed rice shot out into a cage that was two stories high and forty feet wide, to the loud applause of the crowd, who bought the puffed rice in bags that cost a nickel apiece. Anderson’s performance was a success—he sold about 250,000 bags at the Fair—but unfortunately people thought his puffed rice was a snack similar to popcorn. Advertising once again came to the rescue, and consumers learned to eat his “Food Shot From Guns” with milk and sugar.
Sweet as Honnies
After the novelty of flaked, puffed, and shredded grains began to wear off, cereal manufacturers had to find new ways to stand out from the crowd. By the 1930s, the answer was once again found in advertising. Every cereal now needed a mascot, a cartoon figure that appeared on the box and even on the radio (and later TV). One of the most popular Depression-era mascots was the movie star Mickey Mouse, who appeared as a cut-out figure on boxes of Post Toasties. The idea was that after the cereal was finished, the kids could cut out the cartoon figure and play with it like a paper doll. In those years when money to buy toys was in short supply, the marketing gimmick worked and sales of the already popular cereal continued to soar.
The use of Walt Disney characters to sell cereal heralded another shift in the way that cereal was marketed. Whereas earlier the target market was adults who wished to become healthy, by the 1930s cereal manufacturers had their eyes on children.
The first sugary cereal was supposed to solve a problem, not create one. In 1939, a Philadelphia heater salesman named Jim Rex noticed that kids tended to dump lots of sugar onto their cereal. He decided that if there were a cereal that was already sweetened, the sugar bowl could be safely put away. Indeed, his lightly presweetened Ranger Joe Popped Wheat Honnies was a huge success. But as had happened before, the competition took note and decided to do “better,” which in this case meant producing cereals with higher sugar contents. By the time the Baby Boomer generation was gobbling up its Fruit Loops and Frosted Flakes, some cereals marketed to children had a sugar content of almost 50 percent or more.
Cereal Comes Full Circle
Of course, in those days no one thought that sugar was bad. Indeed, it was supposed to give you increased energy. But as American consumers became savvier—and as the Baby Boomers aged—cereal’s popularity began to decline. It still remains America’s favorite breakfast food, but it’s been given a run for its money by the new Greek yogurt craze as well as the trend to grab a bagel or other breakfast sandwich at a fast food chain.
To fight back, many cereal manufacturers are going back to their roots and developing healthier products. Many are also relying on a marketing tactic that Will Kellogg never would have dreamed of using: assuring customers that their cereal is kosher.
Originally printed in Family First.
Mickey Photo credit: Blogspot.com