Cornflake Crusade


“Battle Creek, Mich, has a population of 21,647 persons,” said Jabs , a Chicago humorous magazine, “all of whom are engaged in the manufacture of breakfast cereals.”

“I spent a Sunday there lately,” continued the Jabs reporter, “noting that they had Grape Nuts, Grip Nuts (for commercial travelers only), Postum Cereal, Hullo Boena, Hello-Billo, Cero-Fruito, Shredded Wheat, Fruito-Cerro, MaIt-Ho, Flake-Ho, Abita, Tryachewa, Corn Crisp, Korn Kure, Korn Pone, Oatsina, Hayina and Strawina. …

“And it is surprising the amount of nourishment that some of these foods possess. A dyspeptic drummer who sat opposite from me at breakfast, and who from all appearances was not long for this world, ate three ounces of MaIt-Ho and one and one-half ounces of Griplor and then moving the automatic player up in front of the agony box, played ‘On the Banks of the Wabash’ until 12:59 P.M. without batting an eyeball.”

“You sit out on the front porch at night with your host,” said the Chicago Tribune , “and as the cigars turn into ashes he tells you of the fortune that waits the man who can invent a near cigar, full of near tobacco, which will look like a cigar, and smoke like a cigar, and sell for ten cents like a cigar, but which will not be a cigar at all, but some pure, sweet, wholesome combination of non-injurious ingredients, having all the characteristics of a cigar, but none of its harmful and debilitating effects.

” ‘Make the tobacco,’ the man says, ‘just like we have made coffee and breadstuffs of all kinds, retaining the good qualities and striking out the bad. There’s a fortune for the man that can do it. Somebody in Battle Creek will do it some day. Sure thing. He’ll make his million out of it in two years’ time or less.’ ”

A few from among the many cereal names which flourished for a time during the exciting first decade of this century may be cited as representative of all. Cero-Fruito was wheat flakes sprayed with apple jelly. Tryabita was “peptonized and celery impregnated,” made a few miles out of town at Gull Lake, the only Battle Creek breakfast food to carry the union label. There was also Nutrita, Malta-Biscuit, My Food, and Orange Meat, a whole-wheat product despite its vibrant name. At the height of the mania, the Reverend D. D. Martin, a Methodist preacher, concocted the formula for Per-Fo and received $100,000 (in stock) for his recipe.

The Hygienic Food Company gave its flakes a maple flavor. They were known, not unnaturally, as MaplFlakes. Vestiges of the religious background of the pure food crusade appear in such names as Food of Eden, Golden Manna, and Elijah’s Manna, the original name of Post Toasties.

Of all who felt the urge to agitate “the food question” at a profit, the greater number proved to be inadequate in the areas of finance, of production, or of merchandising. One always turns back to C. W. Post as the man who knew the ropes. Money, product, distribution, advertising—he knew the importance of all, and their interrelationships. Business, like diplomacy, has its Realpolitik . C. W. played the game consumately according to the rule book in force at the time.

Charles W. Post (1854-1914) was born in Springfield, Illinois, and arrived in Battle Creek when he was approaching middle age, a health seeker in a wheel chair. He had tried many businesses and made several inventions including some patent suspenders which he sold by mail, but each time he got into a new venture his health broke. Now he was seeking, through a combination of diet, exercise, and mental therapy what he later called “The Road to Wellville.”

Post did not find his elixir at the Kellogg Sanitarium. His treatment there was, by his own estimate, a complete failure. But he spent a lot of time in the laboratory where Dr. Kellogg’s helpers were experimenting with cereal coffee, using a variety of grains. A born promoter, he approached the Doctor with a plan to go it together on a campaign for Minute Brew, the Doctor’s current enthusiasm, but Kellogg turned him down flat. From then on Post scoffed at the sanitarium, and Kellogg was ever after to believe that Charlie Post had stolen his ideas.

Broad-shouldered, slender, courteous, and slow of speech, with a cordial handshake, Post was a commanding figure. He had dash and faith in himself and a bulldog determination. With one helper he started the first commercial batch of Postum Cereal Food Coffee—they hoped it would be commercial—on January 1, 1895. Postum was joined later by Grape-Nuts and Post Toasties. Finally, Post rounded out his creations with Instant Postum. As an early and massive user of national advertising, Post put a “halo” around Postum, using a powerful brand of farmer English: “If coffee don’t agree—use Postum.” Within less than a decade the Postum plant became a spectacular White City of wooden factory buildings painted white with green trim, recalling to thousands happy memories of their visit to the White City of the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. Post gathered up all the bubbly forces which had been working in Battle Creek for a generation, some elements of religion, and certain aspects of vegetarianism, Right Living, hydropathy, and Christian Science; he dropped the altruism overboard and turned the health movement into an attractive businessman’s risk.