Echoes Dispatches From Economic History
The Accident That Started the Breakfast-Cereal Business: Echoes
The next time you browse the grocer's cereal aisle, plan a spa weekend or contemplate a new diet and exercise regime, give a thought to John Harvey Kellogg, who died 68 years ago this week.
Best known as the inventor (with his younger brother, Will) of Corn Flakes breakfast cereal, Kellogg also left a broader imprint on 21st-century lives as an early proponent of wellness and nutrition.
Born in 1852, Kellogg received his medical degree from New York University's Bellevue Hospital at age 24. A 5-foot-3 dynamo, Dr. John -- as he would be known for the rest of his life -- returned to his childhood home in Michigan and became the superintendant and physician-in-chief at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a Seventh Day Adventist health-reform center.
Under Kellogg's leadership, the "San" became a world leader in pioneering health practices and nutrition research. Will Kellogg served as the institution's talented and tireless business manager.
Thousands of Americans flocked to the resort to undertake strict dietary and exercise regimens -- from outdoor activities, light therapy and calisthenics to various water baths and regular enemas. A diverse set of celebrities, politicians and business leaders were frequent visitors, including President Warren Harding, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Amelia Earhart, Mary Todd Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, Johnny Weissmuller and Kellogg's subsequent rival in the cereal business, C.W. Post. The San's patients increased to more than 7,000 in 1906, from 106 in 1866.
John and Will continually experimented with food offerings that would align with the center's nutritional philosophy -- as well as with Seventh Day Adventist principles of vegetarianism and abstinence from tobacco and alcohol. Whole grains, nuts and high-fiber foods were a staple on the San's menu, designed to wean patrons away from the traditional fare of greasy, dense foods that were often poorly prepared.
The brothers developed breakfast flakes by accident in 1893, when Will abandoned a pot of cooking wheat to attend to business matters. He returned to find a mixture with a stale and hard consistency. Unwilling to waste the food, the brothers forced it through rollers with the hope of forming long sheets of dough. Instead, they created wheat flakes, which they toasted and served to the San's patrons as a breakfast cereal.
Further experimentation led to a patent in 1896 for flaked cereals made from "wheat, barley, oats, corn and other grains." The brothers began selling to the public through John Kellogg's health-food venture, the Sanitas Food Company. The cereals quickly became a popular alternative to the U.S.'s traditional high-calorie, multi-course breakfast that took hours to digest. Cereal sales skyrocketed in tandem with the shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy, as legions of office workers discovered they no longer needed the heavy breakfasts that sustained them on the farm.
By the turn of the century, the nationwide popularity of toasted corn flakes led to a fraternal split: Will wanted to add sugar to the flakes to make them more palatable, and to begin national advertising campaigns. John, not wanting to jeopardize his professional reputation, opposed both ideas.
Will eventually carried the day. He took over the cereal-manufacturing business and incorporated the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company in 1906.
His success soon ignited a competitive boom in flaked cereals, with dozens of copycats turning the small Michigan town into the nation's breakfast-cereal manufacturing Mecca. (It is Will's stylized signature that appears on today's Kellogg's cereal boxes, a historical remnant of his claim to authenticity on packages from the early 1900s.)
John, in contrast, left the cereal business and focused on writing, authoring more than 50 books on health topics, which supported the San's operations. He also continued his medical practice, completing thousands of procedures on patients from around the country who sought him out in Battle Creek, until his death at 91 in 1943.
John's influence continues today, from modern food-as-medicine proponents and burgeoning nutraceutical firms, to the $20 billion organic-food industry -- not to mention the huge market for breakfast cereal. With the zeal of an evangelist and entrepreneur, he changed the way Americans start each day.
(Terri Lonier is a business historian and an assistant professor in the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management program at Columbia College Chicago. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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