The Early Years of American Ready to Eat Breakfast Cereal: The Breakfast Cereal Revolution Until 1930

The Honorable Mentions of the Breakfast Cereal Revolution

     While Post and the Kellogg brothers certainly spearheaded the breakfast cereal revolution, other companies and the individuals that founded them certainly made valuable contributions to and expanded the phenomenon.  Several companies took what the Kelloggs and Post did and expanded upon their efforts, bringing new innovations in marketing and inventing new cereals for the rapidly growing market.

Quaker Oats

     While Quaker Oats and their iconic oatmeal is not technically a ready to eat breakfast cereal, they did produce several ready to eat cereals and their actions promoting oatmeal and their cereals had far reaching implications on the rest of the cereal industry.  Quaker Oats has its origins in a man named Ferdinand Schumacher, who popularized oats as a food rather than a medicine.  His work in popularizing oatmeal was so successful that he ground 360,000 pounds of oats in his mills every day[2].  Unfortunately, in 1886, his largest mill burned down.  Even worse, Schumacher was uninsured, having refused to pay for insurance because he felt it too expensive. 
     Enter Henry Parsons Crowell.  5 years prior to Schumacher’s mill burning down, in 1881, Crowell purchased the Ravenna Quaker Mill Company with money that he had gained while land prospecting in the west.  The previous owners had filed the first ever cereal trademark in 1877, for “the figure of a man in Quaker garb.[4]” The name was extremely appealing to Crowell, who was an extremely religious man suffering from tuberculosis, having made a pact with God that he would devote money that he raised to evangelical causes if God improved his health.  Crowell donated 65 percent of his earnings to evangelical causes for 50 years after his health did improve[5].
     Crowell quickly realized that there was an oatmeal glut when he started his business.  Oatmeal was sold in bulk, and prices were low due to all the competing companies.  In 1888, he set up an oatmeal trust with Schumacher and other minor millers, known as the American Cereal Company.  In 1906, Crowell ousted Schumacher from the company and renamed it Quaker Oats.  Crowell then set about setting his oatmeal apart from all the other brands that crowded the market.  He began to sell his oatmeal in its own container, running advertisement campaigns that demonized the sale of bulk goods as impure and poisonous[7].  Crowell sold the oats in cartons with an image of a Quaker man emblazoned on them, realizing that an individual container provided free advertising space for the product contained inside.  Kellogg and Post had revolutionized the cereal, but Crowell revolutionized its packaging.  Crowell also helped bring radio to American consumers.  When radio began to take hold in the United States, Quaker Oats gave out over a million crystal radio sets meant to be affixed to the top of old Quaker containers[8].

Uncle Sam Breakfast Food Company

                Lafayette Coltrin, the founder and creator of Uncle Sam breakfast cereal, did so in an attempt to make laxatives more palatable.  He had suffered from chronic constipation for years.  His doctors prescribed flaxseed oil to aid in his problem, but the substance tasted awful.  He found that eating the flaxseed itself was more effective, especially when he sprinkled it on wheat flakes and added celery powder[9].  When he found that the cereal not only tasted good, but worked better than the flaxseeds by themselves, he decided to sell his concoction.  The name for the cereal was derived from Coltrin’s appearance- he looked much like the proverbial Uncle Sam and early boxes of the cereal bore his likeness.  The cereal was successful as a laxative cure (one of the slogans for it was “The Food That Glides!”) and within a year of founding the business, Coltrin sold his company to Joseph McGowan and retired.  Under Joseph McGowan, the company flourished and invented a short-lived product that was a first for the industry: a breakfast cereal aimed at children[10].  Vanilla Sweeties, as it was called, was not produced for very long, but it was prophetic of an eventually enormous segment of the cereal market.
                The next product produced by the company would be a hit. In 1928, Lloyd Skinner, an Omaha businessman, noticed that his wife enjoyed adding raisins to her wheat flakes for breakfast.  Skinner dubbed the creation “Skinner’s Raisin Bran”, and approached the Uncle Sam Breakfast Food Company to manufacture the cereal, which would eventually spawn countless imitations.

 Force Cereal

Force cereal is notable in that it was one of the relative few popular cereal brands to not be based in Battle Creek.  The operation was instead started in 1900 in Buffalo, New York, by Edward Ellsworth.  Ellsworth had hired one of John Harvey Kellogg’s men away from the company to help set up the fledgling business.  Ellsworth named the wheat flake cereal he created “Force”, and proceeded to imitate Post’s advertising with the slogan “Reason Why”.  The campaign flopped, however, and Ellsworth created an extremely popular mascot for his cereal- Sunny Jim.  Sunny Jim was featured in countless ads, with his jingle, which described his story: a man going through life ill-tempered and lonely becomes completely changed thanks to eating Force.  Unfortunately, that campaign flopped as well, and required Ellsworth to change his tactics yet again.  Ellsworth did manage to bring his fortunes around, and in 1912 Force was even more popular than Grape Nuts[13].  Ellsworth’s poor business sense undid him however, and in 1920 he was forced to sell the company to cover his debts.

General Mills

                General Mills was a latecomer to the breakfast cereal craze, entering the market well after Post and Kellogg.  Despite the late bloom, the company was the first to bring breakfast cereal to radio.  In 1924, Donald Davis, secretary of the Washburn Crosby Company (which would become General Mills in 1928) bought out an old radio station, changed the initials to WCCO, and brought it back on the air.  That same year, the company began to experiment with breakfast cereal, specifically wheat flakes, after Force Cereal’s sales began to lag and production slowed, creating a vacuum that Washburn Crosby Company, Post, and Kellogg’s would all fill[15].  The cereal created by Davis’s company, which became known as Wheaties, sold poorly upon its release.  Davis decided to increase his advertising efforts bought Wheaties to the radio with the first ever singing radio commercial:
                                “Have You Tried Wheaties?
                                They’re whole wheat with all the bran
                                Won’t you try Wheaties?
                                For wheat is the best food of man[16]
Like Post’s efforts two decades prior, the advertising efforts put into Wheaties would forever change American advertising.
[2]Bruce, Cerealizing America, 64
[4] Ibid, 65
[5] Ibid, 65
[7] Ibid, 65-66
[8] Ibid, 76
[9] Ibid, 40
[10] Ibid, 41
[13] Ibid, 41
[15] Ibid, 77
[16] Ibid, 77

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