Today, many of the products that line the breakfast cereal aisle contain artificial colors and flavors, processed flours, and sugar, all pressed into novel shapes and promoted by cartoon characters. But this wasn’t the way it started out.
The breakfast cereal industry came into being as a result of late 19th century America’s fascination with, and attempts to regulate, bodily functions at a time when grand hyperbolic advertising techniques were just about to flower. The result was that the impulse to change the American diet for the better gave rise to a wild free-for-all of product invention and promotion that is still going on, even though it has strayed far from its original nutritionist and spiritual roots.
One hundred fifty years ago, most Americans ate an English style breakfast: a substantial meal, heavy on pork and other meats and very low in fiber. As a consequence, many suffered painful gastric disorders.
In the early part of the 19th century, the most vocal of many health fanatics, Sylvester Graham (whose memorial is the graham cracker) urged people to “put the bran back” into their overly refined bread. Vegetarianism and Temperance became popular. Meat-eating was declared to be unhealthful and productive of equally unhealthy carnal desires. Coffee and tea were condemned as poisons. Cures of all kinds fell in and out of favor. In pursuit of the healthful diet, Dr. James Caleb Jackson created the first breakfast cereal in 1863, which he called Granula. However, it was extremely inconvenient to prepare, overnight-soaking was necessary before it was even possible to attempt to chew the bran-heavy and dense nuggets.
In Battle Creek, Michigan, the Seventh Day Adventists ran a health institute where the latest in dietary reform was practiced, but it didn’t really catch on until John Harvey Kellogg was put in charge. He had been hand-picked for the job, his medical and spiritual training supervised at every stage by the Adventists.
At the newly renamed Medical and Surgical Sanitarium, Kellogg created a marvel of luxury and high-tech healthfulness. Soon, the “San” was catering to wealthy, constipated members of society who traveled great distances to take his cure. Kellogg strove earnestly to develop extremely bran-rich vegetarian foods that weren’t too bland, to concoct a palatable coffee substitute, and to invent machinery that would ease his patients’ discomfort.
One of his most urgent needs was a breakfast meal that was not difficult to chew, and in 1895, after quite a bit of experimentation, he came up with a cereal made of wheat and flaked, which he called Granose. Kellogg’s flake would soon prove to be a significant commercial discovery, but not for the doctor. He had no head for business and promotion, and he was mostly interested in his sanitarium. His patients were the only people who could buy his products. The man primarily responsible for speeding breakfast cereal out into the grocery stores of the nation was Charles William Post.
Post entered the cereal business after a string of entrepreneurial failures that led to a physical collapse. As a patient at Kellogg’s Sanitarium in 1891, he didn’t find a cure, but he did note that health foods, and in particular, coffee substitutes were potential goldmines. The mere idea must have been enough to perk him up. After leaving the San, he started a business, including his own health institute, right in Battle Creek.
Within four years, he had created Postum, which was a wheat and molasses-based hot drink. Using everything he knew about sales, Post mounted an ad campaign that made the product a success. There was, he said, no limit to the amount of moral and physical ills, including juvenile delinquency and divorce, which were caused by coffee, but everything could be put right with Postum, the beverage that “makes red blood.”
Two years later, he launched an even bigger hit. Grape Nuts was not a success as a grain-beverage, as it was originally marketed. However, it turned out to be an excellent breakfast cereal when it was sweetened with maltose. Post called Maltose grape sugar because he thought it had a nutty flavor. From then on, Post led the cereal game.
J.H. Kellogg’s younger brother and general office assistant at the Sanitarium, Willie Keith Kellogg, followed with an improvement on the Granose idea, flakes made from corn. Eventually, the profit-minded W.K. broke away from his brother to found the second great breakfast food empire.
Hundreds of others leapt into the field as well, many of them journeying to Battle Creek itself to start their businesses. By 1902, thirty different cereal flake companies, most of them fly-by-night operations, had crowded into the small town. And Americans had scores of cereals to choose from, each promising to cure their every ill.
For a very thorough and entertaining history of breakfast cereals from their origins to the present, take a look at Cerealizing America: The Unsweetened Story of American Breakfast Cereal by Scott Bruce and Bill Crawford (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995). Mr. Bruce, clearly dedicated to his subject matter, also has his own website. And the subject has been proven novel-worthy in The Road to Wellville by T. Coraghessan Boyle (New York: Penguin USA, 1994).