After the world failed to end on 22 October 1844, followers of the New York prophet William Miller were thrown into disarray. One emergent group, the Seventh Day Adventists, decided that Jesus had come after all, only spiritually, and that from that day onward his divine judgement had begun. Following that belief, a large number migrated westward to Battle Creek, Michigan, where a prominent Adventist named Ellen White had a vision compelling her to establish a health reform institute to promote the well-being of the masses. Over a century and a half later, that institute’s legacy lives on in the Kellogg Food Company, a brand whose products include Pringles, Froot Loops, and Rice Krispies. If Christ had been taking notes, it is not clear the Adventists would have passed the test.
The thread that runs through this narrative is Corn Flakes, a seemingly innocuous cereal whose popular history has been forged jointly by the sepia-toned efforts of Kellogg’s marketing team, and the ubiquitous ‘fun fact’ that they were “created to stop people from masturbating”. While each version has a grain of truth, the history of Corn Flakes is more at home in the context of the tension between health, religion, and consumerism in the Progressive Era United States. Their invention and the drawn-out legal and ideological battle that followed parallel the ongoing conflict between nutrition and profit in the food industry today.
In the late nineteenth century, as meat became industrialised and the average income rose, the standard American breakfast became fatty enough that “grease, in effect, had become the national condiment”. This fat-heavy diet led to a range of endemic health problems, such as constipation, heart disease, and especially dyspepsia, triggering a growing public health concern. Among those worried was one Adventist, John Harvey Kellogg, who attributed the crisis to long-term individual causes, especially diet. Graduating from Bellevue Hospital Medical College in 1875, John Harvey’s thesis contented that illness was a manifestation of the disruption of the natural processes of the body, and the only cure was natural, holistic living. It was this cure that Dr. Kellogg, armed with a medical degree and the support of the Adventists, saw as a religious and financial calling to provide.
In 1876, when he was only twenty four, John Harvey became superintendent of the health institute, renaming it the “Battle Creek Sanitarium” in order to emphasise its focus on wellness and education. Over the years attendance at “the San” would grow dramatically, catering to 1,600 guests at once by 1897, up from an average of 200 in 1876. While it was open to everyone, the doctor’s emphasis on progressive health, individual agency, and professionalism made it particularly successful among the rapidly expanding white-collar middle class. In a country gripped by belief in its own progress and success, Dr. Kellogg’s promise of a healthy regime that would bring vigour and action to its practitioners had deep resonance.
However, despite its holy origins and high morals, Battle Creek Sanitarium was still out to make a profit. Dr. Kellogg’s methods were notable for their embrace of consumerism and marketing, making use of the growing mail-order business and booming transportation networks to sell Battle Creek-branded products across the country. Notable staples included meat substitutes Protose and Nuttose, a number of cookbooks produced by Kellogg’s wife Elia, and – after a rocky experimental phase from which one taster emerged with a broken tooth – a kind of cereal known as ‘granola’. Over the years, its recipe would be refined to be lighter and more compatible with milk (although carefully kept as bland as possible), soon selling thousands of boxes per week.
Helping John Harvey through this process was his younger brother, Will Keith Kellogg, who worked variously as his personal secretary, supervisor of food experiments, and manager of his dozens of businesses. The brothers’ relationship was far from perfect – Will described himself at one point as “J. H.’s flunkey” and was alleged to have taken dictation for him anywhere from the bathtub to the side of his bicycle. Tensions reached a breaking point when Will added copious amounts of sugar, salt, and malt to the cornflakes recipe while the doctor was away in Europe. Confronted with this betrayal of the Sanatarium’s health values, Will packed his things and set up his own Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company in 1906, commencing a fight for the reputation of Battle Creek and the Kellogg name that would last for decades.
The town became the primary battleground in the struggle, as its reputation for healthy living became gradually replaced by its status as a “cereal boom town”. C. W. Post, a former guest at John Harvey’s Sanitarium, had already started aggressively marketing Grape-Nuts (named for the “grape-sugar” used in their production), and with the entry of “Kellogg’s Toasted Corn Flakes”, thousands of cases of cereal were passing through the town per day. This success attracted a swarm of entrepreneurs offering products such as Malted Oats, Luck Boy Corn Flakes, and Grape Sugar Flakes, eventually numbering 108 different brands by 1911. Amid this competition, Kellogg and Post remained dominant and, along with the Minneapolis-based General Mills, represented the “Big Three” of cereal for decades.
Meanwhile, John Harvey was on a radically different path. While his belief that bland foods tempered the ‘passions’ does make the masturbation origin claim a credible one, the most surprising element of Corn Flakes is their connection to the era’s eugenics movement. While he distanced himself from the Adventists, eventually breaking away from them in 1907, Dr. Kellogg’s religious fervour for public health was unabated. While his efforts at the Sanitarium continued, he became convinced that voluntary participation was not enough, and turned to coercion and regulation to stop the decline he saw in American society. A few years after overseeing its creation in 1906, he became the leader of the Race Betterment Foundation, contributing to the passage of two state sterilisation laws in Michigan. John Harvey articulated his views in a speech made at the Foundation’s opening, expressing hope for a “new human race” genetically predisposed to follow the healthy lifestyle he believed in.
The contested origins of Corn Flakes, torn between the extremes of health and pleasure, of religion and consumerism, of coercion and the free market, are indicative of a wider ideological struggle that is still going strong. Today, society faces many of the same problems, including predatory industries, out-of-touch holistic movements, and a string of national health crises stoked by dietary excess. And at the centre of it all, Kellogg exemplifies the extremes of each position, hosting a bright display for their new “Lemon Groove Pop Tarts” on the same website as a nostalgic timeline of their Battle Creek roots.
Written by Alden Hill
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