In mid-nineteenth century America protein ruled. Colonists raised, caught, trapped or killed their food and ate as much for breakfast as Europeans ate for dinner.1 Venison, veal, salt pork, sausage, bacon, chicken fried steak, shad, trout, oysters and eggs were all morning staples.
“When most of the population was performing heavy labor on farms, the huge breakfasts that American consumed made some sense. But as people moved into the city and took up a more sedentary life, yet still ate as though they were working on the farm, there was trouble.” Trouble, meaning, ‘dyspepsia,’ the antebellum, bellum and postbellum name for “nervous” bellyache disorders such as: acid reflux, agita, heartburn, IBS (Irritable Bowel System) and indigestion.
Sister Ellen White, the founder of a Seventh-day Adventist church, approached him one day while he was printing out vegan pamphlets for her church and offered him a job as a doctor for The Western Health Reform Institute in Michigan. 2 (Sister White’s “visions” had opened her eyes to the virtues of healthy living—especially proper diet—and had revealed Battle Creek, where she had established The Western Health Reform Institute in 1866.) 3 After some thought, John Harvey accepted the job but refused a salary; spiritual callings weren’t lost on him.
In what seemed like no time at all John Harvey transformed Sister White’s glorified boardinghouse into the premier, high-tech, spa/rehab facility for anyone (mostly the rich, the famous and the deeply neurotic) who hoped to find a way to cope with the stress produced by the fast-paced 90s—the 1890s, that is.
4 The San accommodated 1,200 patients at a time, initially (and, eventually, accommodated closer to 200,000 patients).
Some patients had to follow special, prescribed diets. To combat high blood pressure, you ate nothing but grapes (ten to fourteen pounds per day, peeled and seeded by the staff). If you were underweight, you had to consume twenty-six glasses of milk a day and avoid all physical activity, even brushing your teeth. And speaking of teeth…
5 One lawsuit later John Harvey had solved the problem by changing the name to “granola.”
6 As always, though, hindsight, especially autobiographical hindsight, obscures more than it reveals.
His brother, Will, begged to differ. Referring to John Harvey as The Doctor, Will said: “He took most of the glory for the work I did. I never claimed any glory—The Doctor claimed that.”
Here’s what we know for sure: Mrs. John Harvey had set up an experimental kitchen.7 Any number of Kelloggses were fooling around in there and, by the turn of the century, (a) one of them, (b) a combination of them or (c) all of them had come up with the corn flake.
The corn flake marked the beginning of the revolution at the breakfast table but the end of the Kellogg brothers’ twenty-two year business relationship, not to mention their personal one. 8
Years of shouldering various, incongruous positions (cashier, shipping clerk, bookkeeper, errand boy) rounded off by “special” tasks, such as tracking down patients who had escaped and discretely carrying out other patients who had escaped in a more metaphysical sense.
Will had never done anything but defer to his older brother, who, in turn, had taken full advantage of his deference. Will not only had to lick his boots, but also shine his shoes, shave him and run alongside him, steno pad in hand, as John Harvey rode his bicycle—and dictated. 9
Will didn’t stop there either. He added an even more hazardous constituent: advertising. Though shy and somewhat self-effacing—he even used an alias when travelling—he turned out to be a marketing pioneer, through and through.
You could almost go as far to say that he single-handedly invented branding. In 1903 ads for Toasted Corn Flakes appeared in newspapers, on street signs and sandwich boards. Will was the first person in the food industry to use taste tests and premiums. 10 He gave away forty-three million copies of Jungleland, claimed that supplies were limited even if they weren’t, and oh yes, front lined “wink at your grocer day.”
He figured that the focus on health that had come to be associated with the town would mean ready-made consumers. (Hundreds of cereal companies soon had the same idea, and Battle Creek became the cereal capital of the world.)
A year later he came up with a coffee substitute made from cereal named Postum, which he sold by claiming that coffee could cause blindness. Not long after that, he put Post Toasties and Grape Nut Flakes (a cereal that’s never contained nuts or grapes) on the map and the market.
Post built up a fortune faster than anyone up until then in American history (legally, that is); he divorced his wife, married his secretary (who was twenty years younger than he was), underwent a severe physical and psychological breakdown and shot himself in the head while lying in bed dressed in a suit and tie.
An American tale if ever there was one.
1 On March 4, 1897 President McKinley sat down to a breakfast of: “porterhouse steak, broiled chicken, quail, Spanish omelet, toast, hot rolls, wheat muffins, tea and coffee.”
2 John Harvey didn’t invent the line ‘You are what you eat’ but might have: God, he preached, intended for us to be vegans. Meat made you mad (and he didn’t mean angry). The daily fare at the San—eaten as a string orchestra played— reflected this philosophy.
3 Battle Creek was named after what one writer described as a “ruckus between two Indians and two surveyors”—sort of like the “ruckus” at Lexington and Concord.
4 You couldn’t be sexually active at the San, even with your own wife; German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach was escorted off of the grounds on those grounds.
5 Other cereals were around before granula and granola, sort of: Shredded Wheat (l893), Quaker Oats (l877) and Cream of Wheat (l894). Quaker Oats and Cream of Wheat were hot cereals—forerunners of the soon-to-be definitive ready-to-eat cereals, and Shredded Wheat was among the first, if not the first, ready-to-eat cereal. It was sold door-to-door—if you can believe it—but it did not sell like hot cakes, probably because it was comparable to “eating a whisk broom.”
6 By then, John Harvey had taken to wearing all white (since wearing white was beneficial to one’s health), and, as a result, had come to resemble a nineteenth-century version of KFC’s Col. Sanders.
7 Married in 1879, John Harvey and his wife decided to be celibate, eventually adopting forty-two children.
8 This revolution at the breakfast table came about thanks to a number of convergent factors: lack of servants (as in go fetch the water, chop the wood, start the fire, etc.); the recent (1880) discovery of bacteria; the attendant concern with hygiene and germs; and the most important discovery in American history: convenience.
9 John Harvey wrote hundreds of articles and over eight books (largely owing to his brother’s transcription).
10 Premiums turned out to be “an ingenious device of American merchandising designed to satisfy the inborn urge to get something for nothing.”
11 Kellogg’s: A 12.8 billion dollar company that still dominates 31.5% of the projected, 2013, 13 billion dollar breakfast cereal industry, itself dominated by RTE (ready-to-eat) cereal. (Cornflakes are still the leader of the pack.) Trouble is on the horizon though: Growth is negligible, and fast food chains (see FAST FOOD), with their ‘grab and go/dashboard dining’ (no relationship to Dashboard Confessional), are a looming threat. On top of that the Orwellian wordsmiths at ‘First Research’ report: “Children are increasingly skipping breakfast due to a lack of eating companion and a lack of interest in preparing the meal by themselves.”
“Breakfast Cereal Manufacturing Industry Profile,” First Research, Quarterly Update, 2010.
Bruce, Scott and Bill Crawford; Cerealizing America: The Unsweetened Story of American Breakfast Cereal.
Carson, Gerald; The Cornflake Crusade: From the Pulpit to the Breakfast Table.
Green, Harvey; Fit For America: Health, Fitness, Sport and American Society.
Levenstein, Harvey A.; Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet.
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, Vols. I and II.
Thomas, Evan; The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898.
“Those most successful….”; Levenstein, 33
“When most…”; The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, 131
“...it should be...”; Carson, 93
“He took....”; Carson, 125
“...The Original Imitator…”; Bruce, 32
“...slogans that...”; Levenstein, 34
“...porterhouse steak...”; Thomas, 15
“...ruckus between...”; Carson, 3
“...eating a whisk...”; Carson, 120
“...an ingenious device…”; Carson, 7
“Children are....”; First Research